Biden pairs ‘down payment’ on climate crisis with rebuilding infrastructure

By: - March 31, 2021 5:00 pm

Road work in Meridian Township | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 6:04 p.m. with comments from Whitmer

The sprawling $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs proposal President Joe Biden laid out Wednesday in Pennsylvania includes significant spending to address climate change, providing what conservationists say is an important “down payment” to address the crisis.

A 25-page outline calls for $10 billion for a Civilian Climate Corps, $16 billion for capping abandoned wells and cleaning up abandoned mines, and a general commitment to “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure.”

“This bold American Jobs Plan includes significant investments to fix the damn roads and bridges, replace all lead pipes nationwide, massively expand our national electric vehicle grid, and upgrade water systems,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “These shared priorities will be advanced among several other significant investments in housing, manufacturing, broadband, and workforce development. President Biden and I are both focused on getting things done that will make a difference in working families’ lives right now.”

Parts of the proposal seemed intended to draw comparison to the New Deal, the broad public works and jobs program President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed in the 1930s as the way to lift the economy out of the Great Depression while improving infrastructure across the country.

The Civilian Climate Corps, for example, evokes the Civilian Conservation Corps, a broad New Deal public works program that built parks, roads and other infrastructure still in use. Biden in January signed an executive order establishing the corps, which now would be funded.

The expansive view of infrastructure was encouraging for those concerned about climate change.

“It is a terrific down payment on the work that we need to do,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, senior adviser for conservation policy with the National Wildlife Foundation. “This document recognizes the scale of the problem… and reaches to meet that scale.”

The package could be bipartisan because it helps “every corner of America,” Stone-Manning said.

But at least one influential Republican in Congress panned the proposal for its wide reach, as well as the pay-fors that include raising the corporate tax rate and closing tax breaks for oil and gas development.

“The President’s blueprint is a multi-trillion-dollar partisan shopping list of progressive priorities, all broadly categorized as ‘infrastructure’ and paid for with massive, job-killing tax increases,” House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves, (R-Mo.), said in a statement. “Such tax hikes couldn’t come at a worse time, with the economy fighting its way out of this pandemic.

One of the House’s most liberal voices, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said on Twitter the package didn’t go far enough because spending was spread over 10 years.

Jenny Rowland, a senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said the proposal was a “fantastic down payment,” but that more federal spending and a broader scope would still be needed. The organization would work with Congress to “go even a little bigger,” Rowland said.

Conservation jobs

Among Biden’s core campaign promises last year was to address both the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

The original Civilian Conservation Corps would be an apt model to both address the climate crisis and create jobs at a time when both are crucial, Stone-Manning said.

“When millions of tourists each summer come to Glacier National Park, they see the hand of the CCC,” she said. “That’s the scale of the work we can do today for the future.”

The administration’s proposal did not include many details about its Civilian Climate Corps, but members of Congress have introduced similar bills in recent years.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) introduced a bill last month that would authorize $9 billion for the “natural resources workforce,” largely focused on forest management and wildfire resilience.

The administration’s “plan will jumpstart our economy, by putting millions of Americans back to work addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs, and making needed changes to our energy grid, transportations systems and more to help tackle the climate crisis,” Neguse said in a Wednesday statement.

The plan also includes $16 billion to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines. The National Wildlife Federation estimated earlier this year it would take about $27 billion to complete that task.

Abandoned oil and gas wells, which occur when an energy company goes bankrupt, are a major climate change contributor because they leak methane into the atmosphere. A 2018 EPA memo said there are between 2.3 million and 3 million abandoned onshore wells in the country.

Capping abandoned wells is important for the climate, Rowland said. It also provides jobs for the exact workers who would be displaced by a transition away from fossil fuels, she said.

“Those kinds of things are nearly tailor-made for oil and gas workers and are in the same places where they’re already workers,” she said. “So that is a huge job creator, as well as something that will be great for the climate.”

The economic effects of an energy transition have been among the primary talking points opponents use.

Congressional Republicans have criticized the administration’s oil and gas policies, including canceling the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline and pausing oil and gas leasing on federal lands, which they say has hurt job prospects.

In a statement Wednesday, Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee ranking member John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, didn’t address the provisions meant to spur job growth, but said the proposal’s tax hikes and price tag would hurt the economy and energy production.

“Democrats are offering to hamstring the economy with higher energy bills and higher taxes,” he said.

The administration and its allies have countered that a transition would create jobs in renewable energy.

Supporters of the proposal said it was appropriate to pair climate action with a jobs package.

“We’re in the largest economic setback since the Great Depression, so there is singular focus from our elected officials — as there should be — to jumpstart the economy and these jobs will do that,” Stone-Manning said. “And when the work is done, we will have left this place literally better than we found it.”

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.