How inflation turned Biden’s climate agenda upside down

WASHINGTON — The day after the remnants of his legislative agenda to tackle climate change seemed to crash and burn in the Senate, President Biden flew to Saudi Arabia poised to urge the region’s oil giants to pump even more crude oil into world markets.

Mr. Biden took office with a promise to wean the United States off fossil fuels like oil and coal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are poised to trigger catastrophic global warming. Surrounding himself with experienced and aggressive advisors in international and national climate policy, he set ambitious goals to accelerate an energy transition that would touch every corner of the American economy. He presented himself as a master negotiator who had spent almost four decades in the Senate and could form coalitions on big bills.

A 24-hour span late this week showed just how thoroughly frustrated Mr. Biden was in that effort. Its climate goals have stalled amid democratic power struggles and shifting economic priorities due to soaring inflation, including the rise in gasoline prices triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine

After more than a year of discussions, a coal-state Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, told party leaders Thursday that he could not support a $300 billion collection of tax stimulus until he sees more encouraging inflation data from the government to help electric utilities and other companies in the transition to cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar power. It was the president’s last remaining hope for aggressive climate action ahead of November’s midterm elections, and jeopardized prospects for the package.

Mr. Manchin had been negotiating with Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Majority Leader, over an energy and climate proposal that was itself a stripped-down version of the climate initiatives that Mr. Biden unsuccessfully tried to sell Mr. Manchin last fall. In a taste of the recurring nature of the talks, Mr Manchin told West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval on Friday that he was still involved in those negotiations, raising the idea that he might support energy legislation in September, but not previously.

But Mr Manchin also said he was cautious for now on raising taxes on companies and high-income individuals to offset energy and climate credits at a time when inflation is rising at its fastest pace in 40 years. He said he told Mr Schumer he wanted to see the next inflation figure, which will be released in August, before moving on.

“Inflation is absolutely killing many, many people,” Mr Manchin said on the radio program. “They cannot buy gas, they find it difficult to buy groceries, everything they buy and consume for their daily life is a need for them. And can’t we wait to make sure we don’t add anything to that? And I can’t make that decision – basically, about taxes of any kind and also about energy and climate, because the clean technology investments that I advocate have to be paid for by taxes. But I will not do anything and exaggerate, which will cause even more problems.”

Pundits who have been working for months on the climate package, which is part of a broader bill that government officials say would cut healthcare and electricity bills and ease inflationary pressures by reducing the federal budget deficit, said they were under no illusions that there was still more to do negotiating with Mr. Manchin.

“This is oil and gaslighting, as we started to call it,” said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Mr. Manchin, she said, “just won’t admit he wanted to block this all along. It also diminishes his power and influence once this conversation ends.”

White House officials did not comment on the news Thursday or Friday morning, which came at a particularly uncomfortable time for Mr. Biden. The president flew to Saudi Arabia from Israel on Friday, hoping the Saudis and their oil-rich neighbors would ramp up production and help drive down gasoline prices, which have helped hurt Mr Biden’s approval ratings this year.

Leaders of some of the country’s largest environmental organizations are scheduled to meet with two of Mr Biden’s top advisers, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed, at the White House on Friday afternoon.

The death of the legislature is just the latest but arguably worst blow to Mr Biden’s climate agenda as his tools to combat global warming have been gradually dismantled.

“There has been a failure by the entire party leadership to address this,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise movement, an environmental group that represents many young climate activists.

“I want to make sure Biden and his administration hear this loud and clear,” Ms. Prakash said. “They must create a response in all government agencies at all levels over the course of the two and a half years that they remain in office to do everything in their power to address the climate crisis or risk becoming a major failure and disappointment for the American people and especially for young people.”

Ms Goldfuss said she believes it’s time for an “honest conversation” about how much harder it is now to meet Mr Biden’s climate targets without action from Congress.

Economists generally agree that there are two basic ways to reduce emissions and stem global temperature rise. One is to reduce the cost of developing and deploying low-carbon energy sources, such as wind, solar or nuclear, while improving energy efficiency. The other makes fossil fuel use more expensive, either by putting a price on CO2 emissions or by increasing fuel prices.

Mr. Biden appears to have missed his best chance to continue promoting clean energy, at least for now. He could take executive action to regulate emissions in some sectors of the economy, although his options on that front have been limited by a recent Supreme Court ruling that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to monitor emissions from power plants, the nation’s second largest to limit. biggest source of pollution on the planet.

Legal experts say this decision is likely to set a precedent that could also limit the federal government’s ability to more tightly regulate other sources of heat-trapping emissions, including cars and trucks.

At the White House, Mr. Biden’s climate team is now putting together a number of smaller and less effective tools to combat global warming that experts say could still reduce parts of the nation’s carbon footprint — though not enough to offset the to achieve goals. Biden has pledged to the rest of the world. He has promised the United States to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by about half by the end of this decade.

In the coming months, the EPA plans to continue to introduce stricter rules to control methane, a powerful greenhouse gas emitted from oil and gas wells, as well as a more modest rule to reduce emissions from utilities.

And while many economists have long urged governments to tax fossil fuels to reduce emissions, Mr. Biden and his advisers have repeatedly said they want to lower gasoline prices, not raise them. The President is aware of the impact of gasoline on household budgets and the political toll high gasoline prices have taken on his presidency.

Mr. Biden acknowledged the inconsistencies of that position last fall, when gasoline prices were rising but were still averaging $1.50 a gallon cheaper in the United States than they are today.

“On the surface,” he told reporters at a press conference after a G20 summit in Rome, “it seems like irony, but the truth is – you all knew it, everyone knows – that the idea is that we’re going to be able to.” , to switch to renewable energy overnight and don’t have to – from this point on, it’s just not rational not to use oil or gas or hydrogen.”

When gas prices rise above $3.35 a gallon, he added, “it has a profound impact on working-class families just to commute back and forth to work.”

The apparent collapse of climate legislation comes as Mr Biden’s top environmental advisers are reportedly heading for the exits. Mr. Biden had assembled what he called a dream team of experts, including Gina McCarthy, who had served under President Barack Obama as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to lead a White House office on climate policy.

Ms McCarthy has indicated she intends to step down from her position this year but had hoped to do so in a big way once climate legislation is passed, advisers said.

Biden’s top international envoy, John Kerry, who served as secretary of state in the Obama administration, is expected to depart after the next round of United Nations climate talks, which will be held in Egypt in November.

However, with the United States having little to show for it, Mr Kerry will have trouble urging other countries to reduce their climate pollution, experts said. This is crucial to keep the planet stable as it warms by about 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. This is the threshold at which the likelihood of catastrophic droughts, floods, fires and heat waves increases significantly. The earth has already warmed by an average of about 1.1 degrees Celsius, or about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

As historically the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has a unique role to play in the fight against global warming. President Donald J. Trump renounced that role, but when Mr. Biden was elected, he declared America was “back” and would lead nations in tackling pollution that is dangerously heating the planet.

Well, the United States “is going to find it very difficult to lead the world if we can’t even take the first steps here at home,” said Nat Keohane, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental group. “The honeymoon is over.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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