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Behind the Scenes of the Senate Climate Bill & What Finally Pushed Joe Manchin to Make a Deal

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President Biden is hailing a Senate bill negotiated by Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer as “the most significant legislation in history to tackle the climate crisis.” While it faces hurdles before passage, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act would invest $369 billion into renewable energy and other measures to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental politics who advised Senate Democrats on the legislation, says that while the bill is not perfect, it represents a major step forward. “We just do not have another decade left to wait if we really want to be on track to cut carbon pollution in half this decade,” says Stokes.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Biden is urging the Senate to swiftly pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s surprise announcement this week that he would support a budget reconciliation package to combat the climate crisis while lowering healthcare costs. The bill represents a just a fraction of the more than $3 trillion sought by progressive Democrats in 2020, but Biden said Thursday the deal would still be the most important climate legislation ever passed by Congress.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This bill is far from perfect. It’s a compromise. But it is — it’s often how progress is made: by compromises. … This bill would be the most significant legislation in history to tackle the climate crisis and improve our energy security right away.

AMY GOODMAN: The package includes nearly $370 billion in new spending on climate and energy over the next 10 years, but environmentalists warn it contains “poison pills” for the climate, like a requirement that the Interior Department open up millions of acres of public lands to new oil and gas development as a prerequisite to installing any new solar or wind energy. The Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement, “The new leasing required in this bill will fan the flames of the climate disasters torching our country, and it’s a slap in the face to the communities fighting to protect themselves from filthy fossil fuels,” they said.

We’ll have more on the emerging legislation later in the broadcast, but we’re joined right now by Leah Stokes, who advised Senate Democrats on the bill, associate professor of environmental politics at University of California, Santa Barbara, a researcher on climate and energy policy.

It’s great to have you back, Professor. What happened? I mean, the shock waves that went through Washington when the Democrat who was torpedoing this bill turned around and said he would support it. We’re talking Joe Manchin. What happened? You were working behind the scenes.

LEAH STOKES: Well, you know, it was really shocking. And I think the last two weeks, when we thought the entire deal had fallen apart, they were really painful. You know, facing the prospect of absolutely no climate investments out of D.C. yet again — we’re talking decades of attempts to do this — it was devastating. We just do not have another decade left to wait if we really want to be on track to cut carbon pollution in half this decade, which is what scientists say we need to do and what President Biden has pledged to do.

But it turns out that, you know, a lot of the public work saying that what Senator Manchin was doing was not OK, whether that was folks in West Virginia arguing that he needed to make sure that former mine workers had the right healthcare support, or, you know, climate activists saying, “We cannot torch the planet, not just for all of us, but also for Senator Joe Manchin’s grandchildren,” I think that that pressure maybe got to him a little bit, and he didn’t want to have his legacy be one of climate destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: So, lay out exactly what has passed and what didn’t, not — it hasn’t been voted on yet, but what is in this bill —

LEAH STOKES: I like your thinking, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: What is in the bill and what isn’t.

LEAH STOKES: Yes. So, you know, the bill passed the House of Representatives last fall. It included $555 billion in clean energy and climate investments. The good news is that a lot of that has remained intact in this final Senate version. So we’re clocking in at $369 billion. And a lot of the changes between the two bills are mostly shaving the amount for a specific program, you know, tweaking the language, but not getting rid of wholesale programs. There were some full losses, such as the Civilian Climate Corps that the Sunrise Movement championed. But a lot of the provisions that we needed are still in there.

So, how can we break that down for folks? Well, first, there’s a bunch of consumer-facing incentives to reduce energy bills. It turns out that 41% of inflation right now is being driven by fossil fuels. So what this bill would do is make it cheaper to get an electric vehicle, a heat pump, which is a really efficient electric appliance that both heats and cool your home, and for low- and moderate-income folks, it would even help get an induction stove, which is, again, a really important piece of technology to cut carbon pollution and energy bills at the same time. So, we know that if folks adopt these technologies that the bill is going to make cheaper, it will actually save them $1,800 a year in their energy bills. That’s according to an analysis from Rewiring America. And, you know, that’s not surprising, because it costs about a dollar a gallon to drive an EV versus $4 or $5 a gallon for a gas-powered car. So, we’re talking about really delivering a lot of savings with these clean energy technologies for everyday Americans. And I can get into the other details, but I’ll just pause there, because it’s a really big bill, so I don’t want to overwhelm you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Stokes, what about environmentalists warning of the bill containing “poison pills,” like this quote I just read from the Center of Biological Diversity, who said “The new leasing required in this bill will fan the flames of the climate disasters torching our country, … a slap in the face [to the] communities fighting to protect themselves from filthy fossil fuels”?

LEAH STOKES: Yeah. Like all bills that potentially become law, it’s not perfect, right? And we cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good here. You know, these lease sales are very problematic. The basic idea is that they require a minimum amount of lease sales every year. I looked at what the historic level of sales were both for onshore and offshore, and it’s about a quarter lower when it comes to offshore lease sales than the historic 10-year average before the pandemic and about half of the onshore lease sales. So, you know, it’s still lower than what we’ve been seeing on average under the Obama administration and the Trump administration, but it’s not ideal. We do not want to be doing required lease sales.

There are, however, some other changes in the bill that pull us in the other direction, such as royalty rate increases. And, you know, what we’re really trying to do here is reduce demand for fossil fuels by helping Americans get access to clean energy technologies that run off of electricity and not off of fossil fuels. And so, what the idea will hopefully be is that we’re going to reduce our demand for fossil fuels, and that will make leasing onshore and offshore less profitable.

But, no, this is not the bill that, you know, I would have written personally. It’s going to have some bad ramifications for communities on the frontlines of drilling, and that is not good. But we cannot miss the forest for the trees here. We have to be clear-eyed. We’re talking about a bill that will reduce carbon pollution 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, which will get us 80% of the way to President Biden’s goal and towards what climate scientists say we need to do. So it’s not perfect, but, you know, these provisions, the modeling that I’ve seen sort of preliminarily, they’re going to add about 1%, out of that 40%, in the bad direction. So, we can think of it as saying, for example, the good stuff is something like 10 to 20 times bigger than the bad stuff when it comes to carbon pollution.

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