By Marianne Lavelle
Much of the debate over President Biden’s massive infrastructure proposal has been over its $2 trillion price tag. But the most powerful tool for tackling the climate crisis in the American Jobs Plan, in the view of many environmentalists, isn’t money, but Biden’s proposal to create a national clean electricity standard.
That idea—a mandate for increasing the share of U.S. electricity that comes from carbon-free sources every year—has been taking a beating in the political gauntlet of Capitol Hill.
Biden’s national climate policy adviser Gina McCarthy began dampening expectations for its survival last week, although she told POLITICO that the White House would “fight like crazy” to retain the standard as it struggles for a bipartisan deal in the Senate over one of the nation’s most politically polarized issues.
Thirty states already have a clean electricity standard, including red states like Iowa, Missouri, Montana and Texas. And as recently as a decade ago, proposals for a national renewable energy standard were able to garner Republican support in Congress when other approaches could not.
But so far, no Republicans in today’s evenly-divided Senate have voiced support for Biden’s clean electricity standard idea. And the Democrat whose vote has become pivotal because of his tendency to side with the GOP on climate change, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has indicated he is not inclined to support any infrastructure measure that is not bipartisan.
A slew of recent studies by the National Academies of Science and others have concluded that some policy framework that gives clean energy a leg up in the marketplace—a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or a clean electricity standard—needs to be in place to double carbon-free electricity in the U.S. power sector from its current 40 percent share to 80 percent by 2030. Federal dollars alone are not likely to drive the kind of transformational change in the U.S. energy system that is needed to meet Biden’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas pollution economy-wide in half by 2030.
“The basic problem is there’s a completely unlevel playing field right now,” said Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as chief economist for President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “There’s no penalty for increasing the odds of disruptive climate change, and a clean electricity standard would help to level the playing field. Without it, fossil fuels will continue to be advantaged, and advantaged in a way that increases our risk from climate change.”