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After Manchin tanks talks, climate action moves to life support

'It’s not the nail in the coffin. But makes the path much more narrow,' research analyst says

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.,  with United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts in 2017.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., with United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts in 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Joe Manchin III’s decision to oppose at least for now provisions in his party’s climate and social programs bill that would reduce fossil fuel emissions presents a dramatic but not necessarily fatal setback for the legislation and the prospect of averting what science contends will be a global climate catastrophe.

“I do not believe history will look kindly on this moment,” Julie McNamara, deputy policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said in an interview.

“It’s definitely a setback if the bill doesn’t go through,” Ben King, associate director for the U.S. energy team at Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, said by phone. “It’s not the nail in the coffin. But it makes the path much more narrow and much more difficult. It makes every other thing have to go right.”

For months, Manchin and Democratic leaders in the Senate have been negotiating passage of some scaled-down version of the House budget bill that passed that chamber in November. 

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Manchin appeared to leave a sliver of hope for passing climate legislation this year, but said it would have to wait until the current inflation surge abates. And the provisions he said he’ll support are, according to nonpartisan climate scientists and policy analysts, inadequate to avert some of the worst outcomes of climate change.

In addition to representing West Virginia, which still relies on coal for significant employment and most of its electricity generation, Manchin has received substantial income and campaign cash from fossil fuel industries.

He reported $491,949 in income from a coal company based in Fairmont, W.Va., in a 2020 financial disclosure, which said the company is worth between $1 million and $5 million. He is the top recipient in the Senate, according to OpenSecrets, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics, of campaign contributions this election cycle from the following industries: coal mining, mining, natural gas transmission, and oil and gas distribution.

Coupled with zero interest from Senate Republicans to support significant legislation to curb fossil fuel emissions, the primary driving force of planetary warming, Manchin’s decision could easily tank any chance the U.S. will meet its climate goals and undermines the Biden administration as it negotiates with foreign governments on climate policy, said McNamara and other nonpartisan advocates and analysts.

Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute, United States, said in an interview the Senate should not give up on passing a climate bill this Congress.

Undermining Biden

Without a strong federal climate law, the country is likely to fall short of the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 that President Joe Biden announced at the United Nations at the start of his term, Lashof said. “Without a robust federal package and a clear pathway to meet the 2030 target President Biden adopted just last year, it certainly weakens our position” at climate talks, such as the summit scheduled for the winter in Egypt.

Biden also set a goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Manchin has argued those goals are unachievable with current technology and that sustaining the U.S. economy will require burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — for decades to come.

A 20-year timeline could be possible, Manchin said in an interview Friday with WV MetroNews. 

“I’m not going to be part of eliminating what this country needs to run the economic engine and the lives of human beings throughout America, and also the support we have to give our allies around the world,” he said. “I’m not going to do that.”

Manchin’s timeline would make it nearly impossible to reach some climate targets set by the Biden administration, such as eliminating fossil-fuel-powered electric plants by 2035.

In May 2021, the International Energy Agency, a nonpartisan international research organization, said investment in new fossil fuel production must stop immediately if the world’s energy sector is going to zero-out its emissions by 2050.  “Net-zero means a huge decline in the use of fossil fuels,” the IEA said.

An analysis by Princeton University researchers of the House-passed version of the bill, which was more ambitious than the Senate version Manchin opposes, found it would save the average American household $301 a year, create 2.2 million jobs and avoid 25,000 deaths due to pollution through 2030.

Enacting the House bill “would cut U.S greenhouse gas emissions by a cumulative 5.2 billion tons CO2-equivalent between 2022-2030 and put the United States within easy reach of President Biden’s commitment to cut emissions to half of peak levels by 2030,” they said.

Rhodium said in a report Thursday that the U.S., historically the largest emitter of any nation, is on a trajectory to miss its climate targets absent the steps in the bill or comparable climate legislation. The U.S. was eclipsed by China as the No. 1 carbon emitter in 2010.

Without new policies, America is “on track to reduce emissions 24 percent to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030,” Rhodium said.

Angry Democrats

The Mountain State senator’s comments on the reconciliation package drew fury and frustration from his Democratic colleagues.

On Friday, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., questioned in a tweet whether Manchin should continue to serve as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said if he were Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, he would offer the role to moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. 

Some House Democrats were skeptical that Manchin was genuine in his pledge that they could return to the discussion over climate provisions. 

“I hope no one is naive enough to believe this latest Lucy and the football episode and Senator Manchin,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., told reporters. “He may be craven and corrupt, but he’s not stupid, and he knows that we’ve got one shot at budget reconciliation left and we’ve got a problem in the ACA that we have to resolve this month.” (Federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, expire at the end of 2022.)

While Manchin’s vote is critical in an equally divided Senate, other Democrats blamed Republicans for failing to support their climate proposals and said that while the filibuster is in place, big legislation is unlikely to pass.

“I don’t blame Joe Manchin for this any more than I blame a small soldier for losing a war,”  Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., told reporters. “I blame the generals who put him in a position to lose that war and system that rewards him because our problem right now is that the majority of the senators across this platform, the majority of those senators think it is more important to defend the filibuster than to defend our planet.”

Huffman and other Democrats urged Biden to declare a climate emergency, a proposal that would allow the president to invoke federal laws including the Defense Production Act and Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

Following Manchin’s announcement, Biden said that if the Senate failed to move forward with a bill that addresses climate change and supports the domestic clean energy industry he would “take strong executive action,” but did not outline specific actions.

“My actions will create jobs, improve our energy security, bolster domestic manufacturing and supply chains, protect us from oil and gas price hikes in the future, and address climate change,” Biden said in a statement Friday when he was in Saudi Arabia.

Experts said the most significant steps the administration can take to arrest domestic emissions are power plant, automobile, heavy-duty truck and methane regulations at EPA, energy-efficiency regulations at the Energy Department, and a rule the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering to speed electric transmission projects.

“Every part of the government has a role to play, but that includes Congress,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ McNamara said, adding that no Republican senator has proposed a climate bill that matched the scientific reality of a warming world.

“There’s still a full half of our Senate that has put a block on climate action. It’s not just one person.”

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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