Manchin Rejects Landmark Legislation, Putting Biden’s Climate Goals at Risk

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WASHINGTON — The declaration from Senator Joe Manchin III that he cannot support his party’s $2.2 trillion Build Back Better bill has significantly dimmed the prospects for the climate action that scientists say the United States must take to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

Mr. Manchin, who first expressed his opposition in an interview on Fox News Sunday, released a follow-up statement that took aim at the climate and clean-energy provisions in the bill, saying they “risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains.”

As the swing Democratic vote in an evenly split Senate where all Republicans are opposed to the legislation, Mr. Manchin is in the unique position of deciding whether the bill can pass.

News of his opposition alarmed environmentalists. “I don’t think we can tackle the climate crisis at the scale that’s necessary without passing this law,” said Leah Stokes, an environmental policy professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been advising Senate Democrats.

While the administration can use executive action and regulations, without legislation, experts say it will be virtually impossible to achieve President Biden’s goal of aggressively cutting the pollution generated by the United States, the country that has historically pumped the most planet-warming gasses into the atmosphere. That would have dire stakes for the planet, environmentalists said.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said on Twitter that failing to pass the legislation “would be a climate disaster.”

Mr. Biden and other world leaders have pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with temperatures before the Industrial Revolution. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists have warned that the planet will tip into an irreversible future of frequent deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires and storms, rising sea levels, food shortages and mass migration. The planet has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius.

However vital the social programs in the Build Back Better bill, the climate crisis is an existential threat that demands immediate action, said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. “We can’t change the basic physics of the problem,” he said. “So there is a special urgency to this — we can’t miss it.”

The bill rejected by Mr. Manchin would have made the single largest expenditure in the nation’s history to address the warming planet. About $555 billion of the $2.2 trillion bill would be aimed at moving the American economy away from its 150-year-old reliance on fossil fuels and toward clean energy sources.

Instead of penalties to punish polluters, the bill largely relies on incentives for industries, utilities and consumers to shift from burning oil, gas and coal for energy and transportation to tapping into wind, solar and other forms of power that do not emit carbon dioxide, the most plentiful of the greenhouse gases that are warming the world.

The Build Back Better bill would get the United States about halfway to Mr. Biden’s goal of cutting its emissions roughly in half from 2005 levels by the end of this decade, according to the Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan analysis firm.

It would provide about $320 billion in tax incentives for producers and buyers of wind, solar and nuclear power. Buyers of electric vehicles would receive up to $12,500 in tax credits. It included $6 billion to make buildings more energy efficient and another roughly $6 billion for replacing gas-powered furnaces and appliances with electric versions. And it provided billions of dollars for research and development of new technologies to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

The version of the bill that passed the House would extend existing tax credits to lower the costs for homeowners of installing solar panels, geothermal pumps and small wind turbines, covering up to 30 percent of the costs.

For months, Mr. Manchin, who personally profits from investments in a family coal brokerage that he founded, opposed various provisions of the bill that advocates say are vital to reducing the burning of coal, oil and gas.

Mr. Manchin rejected part of the bill that would have been the single most effective tool to cut greenhouse gases, a clean electricity program that would have rewarded power plants that switched from burning fossil fuels to solar, wind and other clean sources and punished those that did not. He objected to a provision that would have imposed a fee on emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming pollutant that leaks from oil and gas wells. And he opposed the provision that would have given tax credits to consumers who purchase electric vehicles produced by union labor.

He also rejected a provision that would have banned future oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

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Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who leads the Senate Finance Committee and who wrote most of the clean energy tax incentive package, noted that it was backed by major electric utilities. “This is our last chance to prevent the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis, and failure is not an option,” Mr. Wyden said on Sunday.

Climate activists, particularly from the youth-led groups that had campaigned for Mr. Biden during his run for the presidency, said on Sunday they were furious and they blamed the president and Democratic leadership just as much as Mr. Manchin.

“Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have failed us,” said Paul Campion, 24, who joined a hunger strike outside the White House in November to push for passage of the spending package.

“They enabled Senator Manchin to set the terms of the bill and ultimately derail it,” Mr. Campion said. He added that failing to enact climate legislation would have “enormous consequences next year for the Democrats when they have nothing to show for their trifecta government.”

Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy group, blamed Mr. Biden for not fighting harder for the climate provisions on which he campaigned. “It’s frustrating to see the ways he hasn’t gone out and championed and fought for his agenda in the ways he could have,” Ms. Prakash said.

With the possibility that Democrats may lose control of the House in midterm elections next year, the prospects for climate action are quickly disappearing, she said. “From here on out, the political map just looks more competitive and less promising,” she said. “This is our moment and they’re blowing it.”

Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said it may be possible to salvage the main elements of the climate package. While the $2.2 trillion version that passed the House isn’t likely to move forward, she said that aspects or another version of the bill could still pass.

“Build Back Better is not dead. We’ve been on the Manchin roller coaster for a long time now, and we see that he shares his emotions in public,” she said. “What’s incredibly important now is that Biden and Manchin start to discuss what is acceptable.”

Others were less sure there was additional room for compromise. “The climate provisions are both historic and urgent and necessary and already a compromise,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “There really isn’t more to give there.”