Joe Manchin won’t support a key climate program. Alternatives won’t be enough.

By Ellen Ioanes

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) adjusts his mask as he speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks to reporters in the US Capitol on October 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A key climate policy designed to phase out fossil fuels will likely be cut from Democrats’ upcoming reconciliation package due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has reportedly refused to back the measure as negotiations over the budget bill continue.

According to the New York Times’ Coral Davenport, who first reported the news on Friday, Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, will not support the sweeping clean electricity program that is widely seen as the centerpiece of the bill’s climate plan.

The $150 billion program — officially known as the Clean Electricity Performance Program or CEPP — would reward energy suppliers who switch from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to sustainable power sources like solar, wind, and nuclear power, which are already in use by about 40 percent of the industry, and fine those who do not.

Experts believe the program is the most effective way to slash US carbon emissions significantly enough to prevent the global temperature from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius, a threshold which would have drastic consequences for the planet if exceeded.

A clean electricity standard, Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert at the University of California Santa Barbara, told the New York Times on Friday, “is absolutely the most important climate policy in the package. We fundamentally need it to meet our climate goals. That’s just the reality. And now we can’t. So this is pretty sad.”

Manchin’s rejection of the energy plan is the latest challenge to the beleaguered reconciliation package — also called the Build Back Better Act — which is now likely to be pared down in response to demands from moderate Democrats like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have said they oppose the $3.5 trillion in spending called for in the original plan for the bill.

Manchin’s home state of West Virginia is one of the largest producers of coal in the US, and Manchin himself benefits financially from the coal industry.

Manchin’s spokesperson, Sam Runyon, told the New York Times that Manchin opposed the CEPP because he couldn’t support “using taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing.”

In light of Manchin’s opposition to the clean electricity program, the White House is reportedly working to rewrite the bill and and find alternative ways to address greenhouse gas emissions.

But in trying to appease Manchin, the White House could alienate other Senate Democrats like Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), who was the chief architect of the clean electricity program.

“I’m open to different approaches, but I cannot support a bill that won’t get us where we need to be on emissions,” Smith tweeted Friday. “There are 50 Democratic senators. Every one of us is needed get this passed.”

The clean electricity program is key to addressing climate change

As Vox’s Rebecca Leber wrote in August, the clean electricity standard “is a bit of a misnomer because the actual policy being discussed is even more boring-sounding: a clean electricity payment program that pays utilities to clean up their act and fines them for missing deadlines.”

Boring though it may sound, however, experts say it’s crucially important for two reasons.

First, the proposed program provides a financial framework for energy companies to work within. Manchin is correct in saying that some companies are indeed changing over to sustainable electricity production; currently, almost 40 percent of electricity generated in the US comes from a clean energy source, either nuclear or renewable. But corporations are ultimately concerned about their bottom line, and the carrot-and-stick approach of the proposed clean electricity program incorporates that reality by incentivizing companies to make the drastic changes necessary to address climate change — and penalizing them if they don’t.

The other reason a clean electricity program could prove key to addressing climate change is that it creates a national standard, as opposed to the patchwork of municipal and state legislation and individual efforts currently in place. Among other impacts, the program would help bring lagging areas up to speed with the ambitious targets set by the Biden administration, which call for 80 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2035.

Ultimately, as Stokes and Sam Ricketts, a cofounder of Evergreen Action, wrote for Vox in February, a clean electricity program provides a framework for other industries to use sustainable power, too.

Clean electricity is the backbone of the energy transition — the critical piece that all the other sectors will slot into. Not only will getting to 100 percent clean electricity directly cut more than a quarter of US carbon pollution, it will also enable large parts of our transportation, building, and industrial sectors to run on clean power. Powering as much of these sectors as we can with carbon-free electricity would allow us to cut US emissions 70 to 80 percent. It would, in short, solve a huge chunk of our climate challenge.

As Stokes and Ricketts argue, a clean electricity standard would not only be effective at heading off the worst impacts of climate change, but it could work within the very limited timeframe scientists have outlined to limit the rise of the global temperature.

It’s also popular: According to a poll from Data for Progress and Vox conducted in early October, 63 percent of voters support the clean electricity program — the same percentage as supports the reconciliation bill overall.

Despite widespread popular support for the program, however, Manchin has a great deal of influence over its fate: Not only does he hold particular sway as the head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, but in an evenly divided Senate, his vote is crucial to passing any eventual reconciliation package.

No other legislation measures up to the clean electricity program’s impact

The clean electricity program is not the only climate legislation on the table, but it is by far the biggest and most important, with the potential to bring the US in alignment its Paris agreement target: carbon pollution at 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has already passed the Senate, includes provisions like funding for electric vehicle charging stations and for public transit and school buses to run on electricity, as well as $21 billion for environmental remediation — such as fixing the 3.2 million abandoned gas and oil wells across the country leaking methane gas.

And even if Manchin succeeds in blocking a clean electricity program, the reconciliation bill will likely still include some measures to combat climate change, including billions in clean energy tax credits and investments in public transit and electric vehicles.

But as David Roberts, a former Vox writer and current author of the Volts newsletter, explained on Twitter Friday, the CEPP is by far the most important piece of climate legislation in play right now, and it’s unlikely that any alternatives would bring about the kind of change necessary for the US to meet the renewable energy and carbon pollution targets outlined by the Biden White House.

Raising the stakes of Manchin’s objection to the CEPP is the the fact that reconciliation could also be one of the last chances Democrats have to pass a clean electricity program, or any major climate legislation. As Vox’s Leber pointed out earlier this month, the party is in real danger of losing unified control of government in the 2022 midterms, and if that happens, the window of opportunity for climate action could close before Democrats regain majorities in both chambers.

Manchin’s push to cut the CEPP also comes as crunch time is bearing down on Democrats in Congress: Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set an October 31 deadline to pass both the reconciliation bill and the infrastructure bill, which will be crucial as short-term funding for the highway infrastructure system runs out on that day.

October 31 is also the day that the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference begins in Glasgow, Scotland, and without significant policy in place to address climate change — like, for example, a clean electricity standard — it could be difficult for the US to rally other nations at the conference to make similar policy changes.

As Rachel Cleetus, the clean energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Leber in October, if Congress can get serious about climate change, other countries are likely to follow suit. But a lack of progress would slow forward momentum all around.

“There is this sense of exhaustion about how long is it going to take for one of the biggest emitters in the world to do its fair share,” Cleetus said.