By Liam Denning
In part, that’s because the Democratic Party is itself split over energy and climate policy. The vocal progressive wing, personified in members such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, favors not just big spending on green initiatives, but also far-reaching mandates against fossil fuels and supporting environmental and social justice measures. On the other side stand members favoring a more cautious approach, not least because they hail from states where fossil-fuel production and distribution is a big source of economic activity, jobs and donor dollars. These include both senators from New Mexico, as well as senators in important swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. But one Democratic senator personifies this wing above all others: Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
In a sense, Manchin is the third big Senate winner this week. Assuming Ossoff prevails, Manchin is the presumptive next head of the chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. His own vote is enough to swing power to a unified Republican caucus if he wants. As a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red state — and one who literally shot a copy of a carbon cap-and-trade bill in an ad for his first Senate campaign — he isn’t going to be onboard for anything like a Green New Deal. He has pointedly said he doesn’t back abolishing the filibuster. At the same time, however, unless he plans on simply switching parties or giving up his committee chair, he can’t simply step into Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s shoes and block everything Biden and the more progressive elements of the party want to do.
The likely compromise involves a familiar emollient: spending. Manchin isn’t inclined, both ideologically and as a matter of political survival in his coal-fired state, to back legislation that directly attacks fossil fuels, such as rescinding tax breaks for the industry or, at a more extreme level, mandating curbs on fossil-fuel production or consumption. But backing more stimulus dollars for clean technology such as electric vehicles or renewable energy is a different prospect. While West Virginians would bridle at a carbon tax, they aren’t likely to be as exercised about vehicle chargers being built on their roads, especially if that brings jobs with it. And Manchin’s critical role means he should be able to secure more federal dollars for the sort of climate initiatives he has favored as ranking member on the energy committee, which potentially extend the lifespan of fossil-fuel consumption, such as carbon capture, use and sequestration.
The upshot is that, as Biden seeks to deliver his green agenda, the emphasis is less likely to be on mandates and more on money — in the form of an expanded, green-tinted stimulus bill — at least in the short term. This fits with Biden’s emphasis on job-creation as a way to sell climate action to the American public in the context of recovery from the pandemic. It also fits with his appointments at the Department of Energy and other agencies, which portend a focus on executive action to coordinate industrial policy to boost green technologies and reverse outgoing President Donald Trump’s own executive actions to support fossil fuels.
And there’s the wildcard himself: Trump, or rather, the Trump faction in the GOP.
Biden has been at pains to stress bipartisanship and ignore the growing chorus of wing-nuttery from the hard right challenging his election victory. But Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm, detects signs of this cracking. In his pre-runoff speech on Monday in Georgia, Biden criticized Trump’s efforts to “assert, take or seize power” over the will of the electorate and also the incumbent Republican senators in the state for backing him up. Book also highlights Biden’s use of the phrase “national emergency” when introducing his climate team last month, headed by Gina McCarthy. While that may have been just a throwaway line from a politician known for his syntactical throwing arm, it may also signal a willingness to resort to emergency powers to address climate change if he believes there is simply no deal to be had with Republicans. After all, Trump considered using such powers to force utilities to buy electricity from his favorite nuclear and coal-fired plants in the name of national security.
On that score, the constitutional arson likely to be attempted by a depressingly significant number of Republican pyromaniacs in Congress on Wednesday (and maybe into Thursday, given the debate rules) could provide the spark. Apart from Biden, perhaps Manchin’s own centrism could be tested by such naked efforts to overturn America’s democratic institutions and norms. As I have written before, the Republican shield for the fossil-fuels business has been effective; but as the party veers ever further away from conservatism toward radicalism, it becomes a liability. Georgia’s unlikely result probably portends a relatively moderate green policy centered on stimulus spending. The Republican reaction could change that.