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Can Biden rally a Coal State Democrat to his climate agenda?

A heat wave engulfed much of the United States this week, and temperatures in the west topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s another reminder of why President Biden has recognized the climate crisis as an “existential threat” throughout his campaign, and why it has remained a high priority on his agenda as president.

But just as the mercury was rising last week, Mr Biden appeared outside the White House to announce that he had struck a deal with centrist senators on an infrastructure package that would dramatically reduce what had been his primary vehicle. to deal with climate change.

The biggest climate-related proposals in the original bill, the $ 2 trillion US jobs plan, are nowhere to be found in the compromise proposal.

Mr Biden said he plans to follow it up with another bill, which would focus on workers in the care industry and other elements of “human infrastructure” and would be more likely to be adopted with only Democratic votes. Climate activists are now placing their hopes in this legislation.

“We in the advocacy community are really focused on the second part of this, which we believe will be more ambitious and bolder on climate issues,” said Elizabeth Gore, vice president of political affairs at the ‘Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement. a meeting. “We see this as our main focus for our advocacy. “

But there is no guarantee that the future bill will include the kinds of provisions advocates deem necessary to contain emissions in the electricity and transportation sectors. And ultimately, what is included in this legislation will largely belong to Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most conservative Democratic senator – who represents one of the the most dependent states on the carbon energy industry, and which itself is closely linked to it.

It was Mr Manchin’s insistence on finding a bipartisan compromise that scuttled White House hopes of pushing the US jobs plan through the budget reconciliation process, which would eliminate the need for Republican votes. Now that Mr Manchin and a team of moderate senators have crafted a compromise on infrastructure, it remains to be seen whether he will support an ambitious, Democrat-only proposal to leverage fossil fuels.

If he did, it would go against many of the models he established as a legislator.

Mr Manchin won the Senate election in 2010, swimming against the Republican turn of West Virginia, in part thanks to a television commercial in which he shot in a copy of President Barack Obama’s cap and trade proposal.

By this time, Mr. Manchin had already made millions from his involvement in the coal brokerage firm Enersystems, which he had helped run before entering politics, and which continued to pay him dividends. thereafter.

Once in office, he often voted to limit the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, although – as a deemed strategic lawmaker – he rarely cast a decisive vote. As a member of the powerful Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which he now chairs, he has worked to increase the energy efficiency of buildings and machinery, while supporting some investments in energy technologies. ‘clean energy. But he also has highlighted, as he did at a committee hearing this year, that “fossil fuels are not going anywhere anytime soon.”

In addition to its long-standing dependence on the coal industry, West Virginia now has a fully Republican congressional delegation with the exception of Mr. Manchin, and voters in the state are usually steeped in conservative media and talking points. This year Americans for Prosperity – the political action committee heavily funded by Charles Koch – spent a lot on advertisements urging Mr. Manchin to oppose an end to the filibuster. The group also brought protesters to the state capital Charleston.

These pressures, as well as its history of ally of the coal industry and other business interests, help explain why Mr. Manchin insisted on bipartisanship. “I think he’s committed to finding solutions in this area, but his journey needs to reflect his state, his constituents, his families and his communities in West Virginia,” Ms. Gore said.

To this end, in his work at the Energy Committee, Mr. Manchin emphasized “reducing emissions through innovation, not elimination,” said Collin O’Mara, President of the National Wildlife Federation, in an interview.

Mr O’Mara is in constant communication with Mr Manchin on the energy and climate negotiations, and said he considers much of Mr Manchin’s reluctance to be genuinely based on the concern of workers in Appalachia who had been hit hard by the closure of coal mines across the state.

“It all comes back to the workers of West Virginia,” said Mr. O’Mara. “Each question – and where it is on each policy – can be found through this section. And he’s very serious about not letting the people who fueled the last century be left behind.

Mr Biden entered the presidency promising historic investments in clean energy and green jobs. He made a commitment from day one to join the Paris climate agreement. Shortly thereafter, he pledged to cut America’s carbon emissions in half (from 2005 levels) over the next nine years. And when he unveiled his U.S. jobs plan, climate advocates praised the emphasis on moving the energy grid away from fossil fuels.

But the compromise proposal unveiled Thursday, which the White House called a bipartisan infrastructure framework, contained only a shadow of the climate-related proposals that were in the US jobs plan.

The bipartisan deal would invest more than $ 100 billion in roads, bridges and other major projects; $ 66 billion in train lines; about $ 50 billion in public transit; and $ 55 billion for hydraulic infrastructure. It would also aim to guarantee high-speed Internet access to all Americans. Yet few of its provisions would directly tackle carbon emissions by amending the tax code or setting national standards.

The deal would not phase out fossil fuel subsidies or institute a federal clean electricity standard, as the US Jobs Plan had proposed. New clean energy tax credits and billions of dollars in research funding were also excluded from the compromise.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Manchin called the bipartisan agreement “a major investment in clean energy and the high-quality jobs that go with it, as well as a pragmatic step forward on long-term solutions. end to climate change “. Spokeswoman Sam Runyon highlighted provisions in the agreement investing in innovation and clean energy supply chains.

But this afternoon, climate activists organized by the Sunrise Movement gathered in front of the White House to express their dissatisfaction with the compromise bill and to present a series of demands.

“Passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill alone is not enough to tackle the climate crisis,” JP Mejía, one of the organizers, said in a telephone interview, taking a break from the protest. . “In fact, it propels us even closer to the crisis that the Biden administration has promised to take us away from. “

Mr O’Mara, of the National Wildlife Federation, said the Biden administration would not be able to “come close” to halving emissions by 2030 without clean energy tax credits and national clean electricity standards – things he said would be crucial as Democrats worked on a follow-up bill.

When announcing the bipartisan deal, Biden said he would refuse to sign the legislation unless it was accompanied by another bill, likely passed by Democrats alone.

“If that’s the only thing that comes to mind, I’m not signing it,” Biden told reporters. “It’s in tandem.” But he stopped short of describing exactly what he expected to be in the second proposal – and discussions of climate change were virtually absent from his remarks.

Mr Biden’s comments caught the attention of some of the centrist Republican senators who had accepted the compromise proposal and said they felt blinded by what they saw as an inherent veto threat in the absence more ambitious legislation reserved for Democrats. The White House has been left to damage management.

On Saturday, after more than 24 hours of working on phones to maintain Republican support, Mr Biden released a declaration acknowledging that his comments had “created the impression that I was threatening to veto the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intention.” He urged senators not to make their support for one bill conditional on the fate of another.

“Our bipartisan agreement does not prevent Republicans from trying to defeat my Family Plan; likewise, they should have no objection to my dedicated efforts to push through this plan for families and other proposals in tandem, ”he wrote. “We will let the American people – and Congress – decide. “

What this really means is that Mr Manchin will once again be in a position to make many decisions, in large part due to his willingness to say no to top Democratic priorities on fossil fuels.

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