While Joe Biden is known for his bipartisan deal-making, he must overcome a potentially more significant roadblock to fulfill his pledge of passing aggressive climate change legislation: winning over centrists from fossil-fuel states in his own party.
“If the Democrats gain control of the Senate, it’s going to be because a lot of purple states turned from red to blue, which suggests there will be less of a mandate to pass something wildly outside a moderate climate objective,” said Sasha Mackler, director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The political landscape has changed from 2009, when opposition from centrist Senate Democrats helped sink a cap-and-trade bill that passed the House and was supported by the Obama administration. Democratic voters have since identified climate change as a top priority, youth activists are demanding quicker action, and clean energy sources are cheaper and competitive, even in Republican-leaning fossil-fuel states.
But centrist Democrats, including former lawmakers involved in the cap-and-trade fight, told the Washington Examiner that Biden, assuming Democrats win the Senate, can’t afford to lose many votes in their party, with Republicans still reluctant to support major climate-related legislation.
They say Biden’s preference for using mandates, regulations, and federal spending to reduce fossil fuel use will be a tough sell for members such as Joe Manchin, the coal-state senator from West Virginia who is poised to lead the Senate Energy Committee.
“There is a difference between aspirations and platforms and actual making of laws,” said former Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who opposed cap-and-trade. “When you are making laws, you have to consider different views between the parties and different regional views that have nothing to do with party. There is no doubt clean energy technologies produce exciting new jobs, but we’ve got a lot of traditional jobs too.”
Landrieu, who supports Biden, credits her party’s nominee for taking climate change seriously and says he has effectively contrasted himself with President Trump without committing to politically risky policies such as a ban on fracking.
“Vice President Biden is very astute and wise to realize the U.S. view and the world view is changing rapidly on this subject,” Landrieu said. “Biden is in the right position as opposed to Trump, who has continued to deny and put his head in the sand.”
“Reaching net-zero emissions is a great goal, and one we should strive to reach, but we must be realistic in setting measurable and achievable benchmarks to get there,” said former Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who opposed cap-and-trade. “It is not as easy to achieve as some make it sound.”
Biden has pledged to pass a clean electricity standard, or mandate, for eliminating carbon emissions from power plants by 2035.
“We are not going to be off fossil fuels in 15 or 20 years,” said former Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who rose to chief deputy whip and was a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee before retiring in 2005. “We’ve tried regulations. The better approach would be to use the marketplace to achieve better results.”
A clean electricity standard requires utilities to use increasing amounts of power from zero-carbon sources, including wind and solar but also nuclear, hydropower, and biomass. Democrats leading a special House climate change committee created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi have also endorsed a clean electricity mandate to eliminate emissions from the power sector by 2040, a slightly longer timeline.
“That sounds very bold and aggressive, but the truth is the utilities are moving that way right now without a federal mandate,” Landrieu said of the Biden and House Democrat plans.
Breaux and Landrieu prefer Congress to pass a carbon tax, an approach favored by businesses and economists, who say it’s the simplest and most efficient way to curb emissions by applying a per-ton fee for large emitters such as power plants and refineries.
Supporters, including some oil and gas companies, contend the tax would encourage energy producers to switch to cleaner, non-fossil-fuel alternatives.
“You can regulate yourself down a sinkhole or can put in place a price on carbon and let the market be as efficient it can be to reach these goals,” Landrieu said.
Liberal Democrats and environmentalists have gravitated toward mandates, arguing a carbon tax won’t push the market to act fast enough to phase out natural gas. Gas is a cleaner fossil fuel that has replaced coal as the country’s most used power source.
Supporters of clean electricity standards note more than 30 states, some of them Republican-led, have adopted some form of the policy, giving policymakers a level of familiarity. Some of these laws are not strict though, such as in Ohio, where lawmakers recently weakened its standard to target 8.5% clean energy by 2026.
Polling from liberal group Data for Progress shows that clean standards are viewed favorably among battleground state voters compared to carbon pricing.
“There is no reason Democrats should shy away from clean energy standards,” said Jamal Raad, a former Senate staffer who co-founded Evergreen, a new climate policy group of aides from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. “It’s happening in states, and it’s popular.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas, a top producer of wind and solar, said climate regulations and mandates should be left to states.
“Instead of top-down federal mandate, we must encourage states to innovate and establish a diverse energy market,” Cuellar said.
Biden’s proposed 100% carbon-free mandate for 2035 would allow for the use of coal or gas if power plants are equipped with carbon capture, a technology that stops emissions from reaching the atmosphere that is not yet widely deployed.
This level of flexibility has encouraged Sen. Chris Coons, a centrist from Delaware and Biden backer who has introduced carbon tax legislation but is open to other ideas.
“Combating the climate crisis will require a combination of approaches, and Vice President Biden and Democrats have put forward bold policies that will cut carbon pollution, harness American innovation, and create good jobs,” said Coons, the co-chairman of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.
Other centrist Democrats from fossil-fuel states see Biden’s 2035 target for entirely zero-carbon electricity as unachievable and expensive. Previous clean electricity standard legislation introduced in Congress have slower timelines or weaker targets.
“Our energy policies should be based on facts and take a balanced approach to sustainability, job creation, conservation, and affordable energy for all Americans,” said Rep. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, adding she has not endorsed plans to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector within 15 or 20 years.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Senate Finance Committee staffer and climate change adviser in the Clinton administration, said the politics of clean energy have changed now that renewables support jobs in traditional fossil-fuel states. Last year, Oklahoma ranked second after Texas in electricity generated from wind, supplying 35% of the state’s power.
“Clean energy is now big energy,” said Bledsoe, now an energy adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. “The economics of fossil vs. clean energy have changed radically in favor of clean energy.”
He credited Biden for positioning a response to climate change as an economic opportunity, and he said that mandates and federal spending could be an easier sell alongside infrastructure or tax legislation to help recover from the pandemic.
“Biden will sell the infrastructure package as economic primarily and climate-related secondary, and therefore, he may generate significant bipartisan support in the Senate,” Bledsoe said.
Landrieu and Breaux worry about temptations for Biden to go his own way.
There is increasing momentum among Democrats for ending the filibuster, which opponents see as the biggest barrier to climate change legislation. Killing the filibuster would allow the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority, rather than a 60-vote minimum. Biden has recently expressed openness to the idea after previously rejecting it.
“If you want to do something lasting, you want to try with 60 votes and have some buy-in from the other party,” Landrieu said. “You don’t want to pass something that can be reversed in three years.”