The US$1-trillion infrastructure deal reached by a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday would make a significant down payment on President Joe Biden’s ambitious environmental agenda, including the first federal expenditure on electric vehicle charging stations and the largest investment in public transit and clean water systems in the nation’s history.
The plan also includes the first federal spending designated for “climate resilience” – to adapt and rebuild roads, ports and bridges to withstand the damages wrought by the rising sea levels, stronger storms and more devastating heat waves that will come as the planet continues to warm.
But the money for provisions to cut the pollution fueling climate change is a fraction of the US$2-trillion that Biden once vowed to spend. The White House sees the bipartisan measure, which includes US$550-billion in new spending, as a first step toward passing a separate US$3.5-trillion bill that Democrats hope to push through this fall on a party-line basis, over the objection of Republicans.
Democrats intend to build significant climate programs into that second bill, including a provision that would essentially pay electric utilities to generate energy from nonpolluting sources, and tax incentives for consumers to buy electric vehicles.
“As climate policy, this is an appetizer,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said of the package unveiled on Wednesday. “It’s not the main course.”
Schatz, who has pushed Biden to follow through on his ambitious climate pledges, called the climate provisions in the measure “fine” and noted that both Republicans and Democrats now agree on the need to protect parts of the country from the ravages of climate-fueled droughts, storms and floods. But he cautioned: “If all we do is nibble around the edges and do some resilience programs, we’re not solving climate change. We’re just responding to the fact that we’re not solving climate change.”
Several Republicans, who filed out of a meeting Wednesday afternoon with blue binders containing a 30-page summary of the bill, said they still had questions. They said they wanted to see legislative language – which lawmakers said could come to about 700 pages – before they would commit to voting for the package.
“It’s a good-sized stack of paper,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
The bipartisan bill would spend US$7.5-billion on the first federal effort to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations around the country. That does not come close to the US$174-billion that Biden wants to spend to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.
But it is intended to jump-start a major part of his climate agenda – reducing pollution from vehicle tailpipes, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases.
The bill would spend US$5-billion to provide electric and low-emission school buses to communities, replacing traditional diesel-powered yellow school buses.
It would spend US$39-billion to modernize the nation’s public transit systems, including replacing many heavily polluting diesel buses with zero – or low-polluting electric buses.
And it would devote US$50-billion to make communities more resilient to both cyberattacks and the effects of climate change, although neither lawmakers nor the White House made clear how that money would be divided or spent. Last year, the United States experienced 22 extreme weather and climate-related disasters where losses exceeded US$1-billion each.
The legislation includes US$73-billion toward improving and modernizing the country’s electricity grid, which would go toward building thousands of miles of new transmission lines to carry more energy produced by wind, solar and other zero emissions sources. And it would create a new office within the Energy Department to help with the permitting and financing of transmission lines.
It would dedicate US$55-billion to ensure that all Americans have access to safe drinking water by replacing all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.
The bill also pumps US$21-billion into cleaning up toxic pollution, particularly in communities of colour, as well as funding to reclaim abandoned mines and cap orphaned gas wells, which emit methane and other pollution.
Biden has vowed to cut U.S. emissions roughly in half by 2030, and faces pressure to be able to demonstrate progress toward that goal when world leaders gather for a pivotal climate change summit in Glasgow in November. Analysts noted that the bipartisan package alone does not come close to moving the country to Biden’s goal, but called it an important step.
“I don’t think that President Biden is going to Glasgow with just this,” said Joshua Freed, senior vice president for climate and energy at the research and advocacy group Third Way. Freed said he was confident that the Democrats’ second package, stuffed with climate change provisions, will be either completed or nearly completed by the time of the summit.
“Moving the United States is like moving an enormous cruise liner,” he said, “and this is an absolutely critical set of steps to build momentum.”
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