“It’s not true that we have to undermine our environmental protections in order to develop green energy,” said Mahyar Sorour, deputy legislative director of Beyond Dirty Fuels at the Sierra Club. And so goes the next chapter in the political war over whether and how the United States will join the battle against climate change.
Unlike America’s long-standing partisan stalemate – not a single Republican voted for the Cut Inflation Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Tuesday – the new conflict over climate policy will pit many environmental groups that have pushed the United States hardest to decarbonize against administration efforts do this.
The new struggle will inevitably derail the nation’s strategy to overhaul the nation’s energy infrastructure, as environmental organizations block the easiest paths to removing carbon from the US economy over the next 30 years.
“Maybe it was the best they could get, but let’s not be dishonest about the compromises,” Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity — an environmental advocacy group, told me. environment.
Right now, what’s choking environmental activists are Senator Joe Manchin’s demands in exchange for his vote for the IRA: pave the way for the completion of a gas pipeline through Virginia- West, plus a series of reforms to ease other regulatory hurdles facing energy infrastructure projects, including environmental reviews.
“There is no reason to give Senator Manchin more concessions than he has already obtained,” Sorour told me. “The IRA is going to be transformative,” she acknowledged. “Congress has approved a massive investment to expand renewable energy.” But when it comes to Sorour, giving West Virginia natural gas a pass is way over the line.
She’s right. The conscription of Congress to approve a privileged pipeline is a little unseemly. Hopefully, America won’t overhaul its energy infrastructure one pipeline bill at a time. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to require pipelines to meet standards to protect the ecosystems and communities they pass through.
But let’s face it: natural gas, which produces only half the carbon emissions of coal, will continue to play a critical role in decarbonizing the energy grid. “Gas is not a transition fuel to the clean energy future that we need,” Sorour insisted. In fact, it has been the main fuel to replace coal. And this will continue for some time. Pipelines will be needed to move it.
Consider North Carolina, one of 16 states that have imposed a carbon mitigation schedule, pledging to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% from 2005 to 2030. An analysis by the Brattle Group for the Clean Power Suppliers Association concluded that the cheapest path to the goal includes adding 2,000 to 3,500 megawatts of natural gas generation by then.
Natural gas also features in national decarbonization strategies. Modeling from Princeton’s Project Repeat, which calculates that the IRA could reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 42% by 2030, compared to 2005, assumes multi-billion dollar investments in additional generating capacity fueled natural gas. The Rhodium Group, which estimates the legislation could cut emissions by 32% to 42%, also acknowledges that gas-fired generation will grow.
Obstructing natural gas production, at this point, will likely just mean burning more coal. “At some point we will approach the end of the coal-gas bridge,” said Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, which promotes the deployment of technology to address environmental issues. “But we are not there yet.”
The environmental movement’s concern over the administration’s climate strategy isn’t just about carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Hartl points out that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig emitted little CO2 but still managed to do a lot of damage by spilling millions of barrels of oil into the sea.
Indeed, many of America’s most powerful green organizations have a broader beef with the impact any energy infrastructure can have on the natural environment. And that’s a problem for the administration’s strategy to fight climate change. Each ERI tool has the potential to defeat one environmental objective or another.
The Sierra Club and other groups have opposed a now stalled project to bring hydroelectricity from Canada to the Northeast on the grounds that the necessary transmission lines would cross long stretches of forest, while hydroelectricity occupies a substantial area and is in any case not renewable.
Plans to capture carbon from the air and store it have also drawn the ire of environmentalists. And some environmental groups are apoplectic about renewed interest in nuclear power as part of the clean energy mix.
The sun and the wind, for now, seem to be relatively unopposed clean energy sources. But the Sierra Club has already opposed at least one solar plant in Nevada. The intensification of wind energy, which requires 370 times more land than production based on natural gas, will certainly come up against the requirements of preserving the natural environment.
The environmental movement’s objection to natural gas and other things mattered relatively little, because the question of what to do about CO2 was controlled by the Republican response: nothing. But with the lifting of the GOP veto on climate policy, Green opposition to all sorts of things could become the biggest obstacle to a solution.
The so-called “permit trade-off” between Manchin and Sen. Chuck Schumer, which would have the endorsement of Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House, will provide the first battleground for this new conflict. Schumer promised Manchin the bill would pass before the close of that fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
But that’s not the end of the new war over the nation’s environmental priorities.
I spoke to Phillip K. Howard, the lawyer and advocate for good government who wrote “Two Years, Not Ten Years” about how government reviews and regulations have hindered the deployment of urgently needed infrastructure . I asked if, ironically, the environmental movement would become a significant impediment to the nation’s efforts toward carbon mitigation. His answer: “Clearly, yes.”
Edward Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost”. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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