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Two things we learned from Senate hearings about Build Back Better and the Fed's approach to climate change

The Climate 202

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! (Well, good morning to everyone except people tweeting their Wordle scores 😂). 

Two things we learned from Senate hearings about Build Back Better and the Fed's approach to climate change

Yesterday was a busy day for environmental policy on Capitol Hill, as two Senate panels simultaneously held hearings on thorny issues surrounding climate change and clean energy.

While the Energy and Natural Resources Committee debated the benefits of hydropower for the planet and the electrical grid, Democrats on the Banking Committee grilled Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell on climate-related financial risks.

We watched both hearings so you didn't have to, with assistance from our colleague Rachel Siegel, an economics reporter at The Washington Post who covers the Fed. Here were our main takeaways:

Manchin talked up the infrastructure bill — not BBB

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, touted the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed in November not the roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better Act that he said he could not support in late December.

His comments were the latest sign that talks over Democrats' sweeping climate and social spending bill have been tabled, as the party pivots to voting rights legislation and as Manchin backs away from his own $1.8 trillion counteroffer to the White House.

In his opening remarks at the hearing yesterday, Manchin called the bipartisan infrastructure bill a “once-in-a-generation investment” that includes “crucial funding to advance carbon capture utilization, sequestration and removal; hydrogen and critical minerals and battery recycling; upgrading transmission infrastructure and modernizing the electric grid; energy efficiency and weatherization … and so much more.”

However, BBB contains a much larger investment in combating climate change and boosting clean energy through a $555 billion package of grants, tax credits and other policies. And while the infrastructure bill established a new grant program at the Department of Energy to support hydropower projects, BBB includes a 30 percent investment tax credit for hydropower producers championed by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association, testified that while he appreciated the provisions in the infrastructure legislation that would help the clean energy sector, the bipartisan bill was "just a down payment" and the Senate must swiftly pass Build Back Better.

Asked for comment, Manchin spokeswoman Sam​ Runyon said in an email to The Climate 202: “Senator Manchin has clearly articulated his policy concerns with Build Back Better which are rooted in rising inflation, the ongoing pandemic and the geopolitical uncertainty around the world. He continues to look for ways to improve the lives of every American.”

Powell said climate stress tests will be a 'priority'

Meanwhile, Powell said yesterday that climate stress tests will be a "priority" for the Fed, a comment that may placate some climate activists who criticized his nomination for a second term as chair of the central bank.

Climate stress tests are used as a tool for assessing the resiliency of Wall Street banks to the risks that climate change poses to the U.S. financial system. While Powell said in July last year that the central bank was "in the process of" looking at climate stress scenarios, he cautioned that "we haven't decided to do that yet."

"We are looking at climate stress tests. I think it's very likely that climate stress scenarios, as we like to call them, will be a key tool going forward," Powell said at his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Banking Committee.

Asked by Banking Chairman Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) whether he would make climate stress tests a top priority if confirmed for another term as chair, Powell said yes. “That is likely to be a very important priority over the coming years,” he said.

Kathleen Brophy, a senior strategist at the Sunrise Project, a climate justice group, told The Climate 202 that she was "very happy to hear" Powell offer a stronger commitment to climate stress tests yesterday.

"After the announcement of his nomination, a worry for us was that he would … continue to obstruct any kind of meaningful action on climate," Brophy said. "But after some of his answers, I'm feeling more hopeful."

👀 Nomination watch: Biden is also expected to tap Sarah Bloom Raskin as the Fed's top banking regulator as soon as this week. Raskin, who previously served as deputy secretary of the Obama administration’s Treasury Department and as a governor on the Fed board, has been vocal about the need to address climate-related financial risks.

White House spokesman Chris Meagher declined to comment on the potential Raskin nomination.

Agency alert

White House task force calls for strengthening scientific integrity rules

The White House Science Integrity Task Force yesterday released a report that calls for the creation of a scientific integrity council spanning multiple agencies, expanding scientific integrity training to contractors and grant recipients, and strengthening accountability for officials who are found to have violated rules around scientific integrity.

Biden convened the task force after scandals during the Trump administration in which political officials were accused of interfering with the scientific process. In 2019, for example, President Donald Trump marked up a map to indicate that a hurricane was threatening part of Alabama, even though the National Weather Service in Birmingham said it wasn’t.

Here are the top staffers running Biden's EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency is at the center of the Biden administration’s climate ambitions. E&E News’s Kevin Bogardus gives the rundown on some of its key staffers. And if you are wondering about the dogs, cats, horses and fish of EPA’s top officials, Bogardus has that information, too. 

  • Vicki Arroyo, the head of EPA’s policy shop, is charged with drafting rules to protect human health and the environment. Before joining the Biden administration, she led the Georgetown Climate Center. Arroyo adopted a kitten named Tiny during the pandemic but told E&E News that Tiny is "not so tiny anymore.”
  • Dorien Paul Blythers, the deputy chief of staff for operations, helps figure out where EPA Administrator Michael Regan needs to be and whom he should engage with. Blythers spends holidays on his family’s farm in Chulahoma, Miss., where his great-grandparents ran a sharecropping operation and were subsistence farmers. He has a horse at the farm named Black Mamba after Kobe Bryant.
  • Rosemary Enobakhare, serves at the associate administrator for public engagement and environmental education, promoting a dialogue between the agency and communities across the country.
  • Lindsay Hamilton leads EPA’s public affairs office, which means making sure the world knows what the agency does. She previously worked at Climate Nexus and on Capitol Hill.
  • John Lucey serves as special assistant to the administrator. As a top aide to Regan, Lucey will be making sure money from the infrastructure bill gets where it needs to go. His pet? A pandemic puppy named Josie who just celebrated her first birthday.

The EPA is taking action against coal ash contamination

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to stop utilities from dumping coal ash into storage ponds, where the ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity, can contaminate groundwater, the Associated Press’s Matthew Daly reports.

The EPA has told some facilities they will have to close their coal ash ponds ahead of schedule. The move marks the first time the agency has enforced a 2015 rule aimed at preventing groundwater contamination from the disposal of coal ash.

Extreme events

Warming permafrost threatens Arctic infrastructure

The warming of frozen Arctic grounds has already destabilized roads, warped concrete buildings, spurred landslides and broken pipelines. But research suggests that even more human infrastructure is at risk, The Post’s Joshua Partlow reports.

Nearly 70 percent of the infrastructure in the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost regions is in areas with high potential for thaw of near-surface permafrost by 2050, according to research published as part of a series on permafrost in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. Approximately 120,000 buildings and nearly 25,000 miles of roads could be affected.

The stakes of warming permafrost will be felt far beyond the Arctic. One study notes that permafrost stores nearly 1.9 trillion tons of frozen and thawing carbon, which will further exacerbate climate change if released into the atmosphere.

Ocean warmth hit a record high in 2021

Since the late 1980s, the world's oceans warmed at a rate eight times faster than in the preceding decades as humans sent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, The Post’s Kasha Patel reports. Earth's oceans last year contained the most heat energy since measurements began six decades ago, according to a study published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences

The warmer waters fuel extreme weather events such as tropical storms and increase the frequency of marine heat waves, which disrupt ocean food chains. They also destabilize Antarctic ice shelves, contributing to sea-level rise.

The power grid

This year will see a spate of coal plant retirements

U.S. power plants are set to retire 14.9 gigawatts of electricity over the course of the year, according to a report from the Energy Information Administration. The vast majority (85 percent) of the energy going offline will be from coal, as the coal fleet ages and the notoriously dirty fossil fuel faces more competition from natural gas and renewables. The sector that makes up the next largest share of the retiring energy is natural gas (8 percent), followed by nuclear energy (5 percent).

Viral

Teens on TikTok ​​​​​​have been criticizing ​​​​​​Leonardo DiCaprio for vacationing on his high-emission super-yacht after the release of "Don't Look Up," as Washington Post climate solutions editor Dayana Sarkisova pointed out:

Thanks for reading!

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