The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Manchin’s opposition to Build Back Better bill undercuts Biden’s climate agenda

The legislation included hundreds of billions for electric-vehicle charging stations, as well as tax credits for wind and solar projects

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) walks to the Senate floor after a Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on Dec. 17. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Biden’s climate agenda suffered a massive setback Sunday after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) pulled his support from Democrats’ spending bill, potentially dooming the legislation amid warnings from scientists that the world is running out of time to prevent climate change’s most catastrophic effects.

Manchin’s comments on “Fox News Sunday” put at risk a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants and other policies aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions that would rank as the largest clean-energy investment in U.S. history. The legislation’s passage would have helped Biden meet his goal of cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions in half compared with 2005 levels by 2030.

The senator, who had been the chief Democratic obstacle to the White House’s sweeping policy initiative for nearly six months, said he could not support the bill because of his concerns about inflation, the growing deficit and the need to focus on the omicron coronavirus variant.

Without a reduction of that speed and scale, the United States would fall short of the targets it committed to under the 2015 Paris agreement, potentially locking in a future of increasingly destructive forest fires, deadly floods and droughts. Already, record-breaking hurricanes and fires are testing the federal government’s ability to respond to overlapping disasters.

The administration has already adopted several policies to limit climate pollutants: This week it will tighten mileage standards for cars and light trucks, and it has adopted rules that would curb potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning. But several analyses have shown that these executive actions will not make deep enough emissions cuts to meet the president’s global climate pledge.

“Without Build Back Better, the 2030 target is certainly still feasible, but it’s going to be a lot harder to reach,” said John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, an independent energy research firm. “In one action, the federal government was going to get halfway there.”

The president and his deputies can still write new regulations to encourage utilities and auto companies to shift away from fossil fuels, while tightening energy efficiency standards, Larsen said, and state actions can also accelerate greenhouse gas reductions. But without the bill’s generous tax incentives and spending to ease the transition, industry groups will be less likely to accept those changes without a fight. And a future administration could unravel these rules more easily than an existing law.

Lawmakers respond to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D- W.Va.) saying he ‘cannot vote’ for Democrats’ social and climate spending bill on Dec. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democrats urged Manchin to return to talks on Sunday, describing their fellow party member in harsh terms and emphasizing that many of the spending bill’s details had been negotiated for months. They said that the legislation would create thousands of jobs in the clean-energy sector and auto manufacturing, and help America compete with China and the European Union.

“Failing to pass Build Back Better condemns us to higher energy prices, fewer jobs and a back seat to those that take action and lead on technology and innovation,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). Manchin’s position “is downright unpatriotic, and it utterly fails to address the climate crisis,” she said.

In a separate statement Sunday, Manchin countered, “The energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America."

Left-leaning environmentalists blamed Manchin for walking away from negotiations. But they also directed their criticism toward Biden and Democratic leaders, who they said had allowed a single senator to hold major legislation hostage.

The bill’s death “isn’t just Joe Manchin’s fault,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization fighting to stop climate change. Its failure “is also on Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. They had a moral obligation to play hardball with Joe Manchin, and chose not to.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), however, praised Manchin for bucking his party. “I very much appreciate Senator Manchin’s decision not to support Build Back Better, which stems from his understanding of the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the bill," he tweeted.

Manchin cites a blind trust to justify climate votes. But much income from his family’s coal company isn’t covered.

Manchin signaled that he still could continue negotiating with Biden and other top Democrats on a scaled-back version of the bill in his later statement. But the senator otherwise said he could not “vote to move forward with this mammoth piece of legislation.”

He said the effort would “dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” explaining that the country’s rising debt would complicate its ability to respond to “geopolitical uncertainty.”

Manchin, who earns millions from his family’s waste coal business, earlier this year had succeeded in killing a key piece of the climate proposal — a $150 billion plan to push power companies toward cleaner energy. The senator had also objected to parts of the Build Back Better bill that the oil and gas industry opposed, including measures designed to reduce methane emissions, promote electric cars, and ban new drilling in America’s offshore waters.

Even after the clean-energy program was dropped, the bill’s remaining climate measures would have gone a long way toward accelerating the country’s pivot away from burning fossil fuels.

The bill contained $320 billion in tax credits for producers and buyers of wind, solar and nuclear power. This would have made generating electricity from coal and gas increasingly uneconomical and spurred the construction of new solar arrays and wind turbines across the country.

Other measures would have made it easier to build transmission lines, purchase electric vehicles and expand clean-energy infrastructure. A “green bank” would have made it simpler for a variety of firms to obtain financing.

Homeowners would have benefited from a variety of credits. One that would have cut the cost of installing solar on a residential rooftop by 30 percent, according to a White House estimate. Others would have made switching from gas or oil-burning appliances to electric heat pumps and water heaters more affordable. About $6 billion would have supported home energy-efficiency retrofits.

Biden also planned to create a Civilian Climate Corps to hire 300,000 young people to restore forests and wetlands, lowering the country’s emissions and guarding against the effects of rising temperatures.

Manchin’s pronouncement Sunday that he “could not” vote for the bill has also jeopardized a provision that would extend benefits for coal miners with black lung disease for another decade, an important issue in West Virginia. If the bill does not pass by the end of the year, funding for those benefits will drop by half.

It remains unclear whether Democrats can pass a stand-alone climate bill next year. Senators vowed to press ahead, but held back from divulging details on whether they would scale back their ambitions to further address Manchin’s concerns.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called on lawmakers not to give up on their efforts to address global warming, despite the fact that Manchin’s support remains critical in the 50-50 Senate.

“The planet is not going to pause its warming process while we sort our politics out. We owe it to future generations to figure out what can pass, and pass it,” Schatz said in a statement. “Despair is not an option.”

And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted Sunday afternoon that the administration was not accepting defeat. “This is not over, folks.”

Seung-Min Kim contributed to this report.

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