Biden's vision for green US imperiled by Senate coal-state tycoon

Washington (AFP) –


President Joe Biden has pledged to enact the toughest environmental policies in US history but his plans look dead on arrival thanks to one senator who has pocketed a fortune from fossil fuels.

The $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) -- a cornerstone of Biden's sweeping domestic agenda -- would reward utilities that switch to renewable energy and penalize those that do not.

Experts say the program would cut most greenhouse gas pollution tied to electricity generation, which accounts for roughly a quarter of US emissions.

But Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia who heads the Senate's energy committee, argues that throwing cash at companies already moving away from fossil fuels is wasteful.

"It makes no sense to me at all for us to take billions of dollars and pay utilities for what they're going to do as the market transitions," the multimillionaire told CNN last month.

Under laws originally intended to encourage cross-party cooperation, legislation in the United States usually needs the support of 60 of the 100 senators to get out of the starting blocks.

The ruling party can overcome opposition stonewalling to pass certain measures however with just a simple majority, through an arcane budgeting process known as "reconciliation."

But even under this system, they rely on a vice-presidential tiebreaker in the 50-50 Senate if there's no opposition backing, meaning Manchin has an effective veto and can tank any bill.

The 74-year-old has already emerged as a crucial up-or-down vote on the historic, multi-trillion dollar "Build Back Better" social welfare bill that contains the climate provisions.

- 'Stop the pain' -

The impasse creates a headache for the president as he prepares to head to Glasgow for a major climate change gathering at the end of the month.

Keen to rebuild US climate credibility undermined by inertia and denialism under Donald Trump, Biden is desperate to have sweeping new global warming curbs agreed in Washington before he shows up.

CEPP, along with clean energy tax credits, would have made up the majority of Biden's goal of slashing emissions to 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.

US President Joe Biden wants to slash emissions to 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030
US President Joe Biden wants to slash emissions to 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 Olivier DOULIERY AFP/File

Gridlock on Capitol Hill while Democrats control Congress and the White House also threatens to undermine the party's case going into next year's midterm elections that it knows how to govern.

Manchin has a vested and longstanding interest as a senator from West Virginia, the second-largest coal producing state after Wyoming, according to government data, generating nine-tenths of its electricity from the fuel.

His last public financial disclosure reveals that he received almost half a million dollars in dividends on stock from Enersystems, the coal brokerage firm he founded that is now run by his son.

But rates for coal-fired power have more than doubled over the past decade. While he may have the support of miners and other workers in the traditional energy sector, Manchin is not backed by all West Virginians.

Jim Kotcon, chairman of environmental lobby group the Sierra Club's local conservation committee, said West Virginians were seeing increasingly severe floods thanks to climate change -- and skyrocketing utility bills.

"Stop the pain: prioritize investments in the people of West Virginia... Pass the Build Back Better bill and move West Virginians forward," he said in a statement.

- 'No climate, no deal' -

Manchin's refusal to support the clean electricity program has also sparked a backlash from fellow Democrats in Washington, with some threatening to sink the broader bill in its entirety.

"Here's the deal: climate cannot and will not be cut. No climate, no deal," Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey said at a recent press event.

West Wing aides are said to be scrambling to look for other legislative ways to achieve climate benefits and keep Democratic support on track.

These could include a carbon tax -- in which polluting industries pay a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit -- or additional clean-energy tax incentives and credits.

Minnesota's Senator Tina Smith, a long-time champion of the clean energy program, described the social spending bill as "our last chance" to take effective action on carbon emissions.

"Clean energy tax credits are great, but they can't do the heavy lifting all by themselves," she said.

But for environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, Manchin's position essentially marks "the end of the line for the foreseeable future" for legislation shutting down burning of fossil fuels.

"Whatever emerges, the administration will certainly be able to claim that it's the 'largest climate legislation Congress has ever adopted,'" he said in a weekend blog post.

"But it will also be a failure."

Manchin's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.