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Passed in House, climate change measures in Build Back Better face uncertain future in Senate

·Senior Climate Editor
·3-min read
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Climate Change, Get the latest
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Passed Friday by the House of Representatives, the Build Back Better budget bill contains unprecedented funding to address climate change, but the legislation now faces an even tougher battle in the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority.

“It’s now up to the Senate to strengthen and immediately pass a Build Back Better Act that prioritizes people and the planet instead of corporate profits and dirty industries,” Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica said in a statement.

The measure would spend around half a trillion dollars over 10 years to hasten the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, with the bulk of that money going to tax incentives for creating renewable energy — buying rooftop solar panels, for example — switching to electric vehicles and modernizing the electric grid.

While environmental groups like Friends of the Earth applauded the bill’s passage in the House, some also lamented what dropped out of the package as President Biden sought to shore up support from Senate moderates. The biggest loss was the removal of Biden’s proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have used a mix of subsidies and fees to incentivize utilities to rapidly reduce their reliance on coal and natural gas.

“The Build Back Better Act is both an historic achievement and nowhere near enough,” Pica's statement said. “The investments in renewable energy, education, the care economy, and other invaluable priorities are significant.”

Nancy Pelosi stands in the middle of a tight group of lawmakers with her right hand held aloft while others applaud, all wearing face masks.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi cheers with House Democrats after the passage of the Build Back Better Act on Friday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

If the Senate includes those provisions in its own version of the legislation, it would constitute a significant down payment on Biden’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s a big if.

Perhaps the most controversial climate-related element of the House bill is a fee on methane emissions. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas in the short term, and the Biden administration led an effort before and during the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to get countries to commit to reducing methane pollution by 30 percent by 2030. Methane is frequently leaked in oil and gas wells and pipelines, and the proposal is opposed by the American Petroleum Institute, the leading oil industry lobby.

Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, has concerns about the methane fee. That program and others, such as the electric vehicle tax credits, are reportedly at risk of being axed to win Manchin’s crucial support in the evenly divided Senate, as Democrats will need every single member of their party to pass the budget over unified Republican opposition.

Joe Manchin walks on the grounds outside of the White House.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on the grounds of the White House on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite pleas from groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to strengthen the climate change components of the bill in the Senate, just preserving the House version — and, with it, the possibility of hitting Biden’s targets and keeping his commitments made in Glasgow — is the best realistic possible victory for climate hawks.

In a press conference on Friday morning, House Democrats expressed confidence that the Senate would pass a companion that maintains the House version’s core programs.

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