Spring is in the air. But it feels like Christmas on Capitol Hill. An enormous energy bill is now pending in the U.S. Senate — one that incorporates more than 50 previously introduced provisions, including giving money to green energy, nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration.
The authors of the American Energy Innovation Act of 2020 are Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.V. They remarked that it’s been 13 years since the last major energy bill passed — metaphorically known as “Christmas trees” because they have something for everyone. There’s also something for anyone to dislike. While a majority of the U.S. Senate will likely back it, the U.S. House will not because of its failure to set CO2 limits. Election-year politics, meantime, is also in the air, suspending its ultimate fate.
“This bill is our best chance to modernize our nation’s energy policies in more than 12 years,” says Senator Murkowski, in a statement. “By working together to pass it into law, we can promote a range of emerging technologies that will help keep energy affordable even as it becomes cleaner and cleaner.”
The measure does not specifically address climate change, but it does provide the funds to expand research and development into solar panels and wind turbines as well as wave technology, geothermal power and energy storage. At the same time, it continues to bankroll energy efficiency efforts, especially for buildings that have big carbon footprints while providing support for automotive technologies that improve gas mileage. It does not extend the tax credits for wind and solar production. Ditto for the credit given to buyers of electric vehicles.
To be clear, the policies and the resources are aimed at the largest carbon-producing sectors: transportation, electric generation, industry and commercial and residential buildings.
As with any “Christmas tree” bill, this one is also generous. The legislation expands oil and gas production, especially in Appalachia that is seeking to build a storage facility so that the region can compete with the Gulf Coast. Such development would help the area rebuild. At the same time, it would fund research into carbon capture that has yet to breakthrough commercially but which could potentially give coal a second life.
“Some provisions in the (legislation,) such as those that make investments in renewable power, clean manufacturing, energy efficiency, and the innovation-driving (energy efficiency) program, can help us to innovate and grow the economy, while lessening carbon emissions,” says John Bowman managing director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Other parts of the bill would undermine bedrock environmental laws, weaken public lands protections and ramp up dirty energy fueling climate change.”
The broader context, of course, is that the introduction of this legislation is taking place in an election year. The bill won’t pass now because it is too big and because there is too much opposition. But it will also fail because the Democrats want to highlight the climate cause and to underscore Donald Trump’s denial of climate science, including his attempted rollback of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that set limitations on CO2 releases — 32% by 2030.
With that, the pending legislation has no hard carbon goals. But the markets have already weighed in: Xcel Energy has said it will deliver carbon-free electricity by 2050 and 80% by 2030. NRG Energy, meanwhile, has vowed to cut its CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Southern Co. also said that it has similar goals while the Northern Indiana’s Public Service Company said that it is replacing all of its coal-fired generation with renewables by 2028 — something that will save it $4 billion over 30 years.
If the Democrats win the White House or they would control of both the Senate and House, the whole calculus could change. A Bernie Sanders presidency would go all-in for the funding of green energy research and any measures to encourage their adoption while setting aggressive carbon-reduction goals. A Joe Biden presidency would take more modest steps and ones that would be necessary to win Republican acceptance — especially if they keep their majority in the U.S. Senate or they would at least have enough votes to filibuster.
Biden is not an ideologue. He is a consensus builder. His policies would thus seek to construct lasting legacies — ones that would not get tossed by the courts. He would accelerate what the Obama-Biden administration already started, which is the reduction of CO2 releases and the creation of 21st jobs in areas now devastated by changing economic conditions.
“Electric vehicles, clean energy technologies like wind and solar power, and energy storage technologies that facilitate a cleaner electricity grid are all commercially available,” the Union for Concerned Scientists said in a statement. “Furthermore, clean energy tax credits have been the most effective federal policy tool for incentivizing deployment of these technologies, but many of these incentives are phasing down or are expiring.”
Mega-bills are inherently controversial. The American Energy Innovation Act is no different. With the national election approaching, Democrats are highlighting their core differences with the political opposition — a tack that involves allocating more resources to limiting heat-trapping emissions. A smaller bill aimed at clean energies could pass this year. But a massive one adorned with ornaments will have to wait until at least Christmas 2021.