Bill to help curb inflation does little to aid environment

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Berl Falbaum

 If you are concerned about the environment and are celebrating the Schumer-Manchin “compromise” bill, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Biden this week, I suggest you blow out the candles on the cake.

I hate to rain on your parade, but the bottom line is that it will do little to avoid the environmental disaster to which we are headed.

Let’s review a few of the “highlights.”

The cost of legislation that Biden originally recommended was $3.5 trillion. The Schumer-Manchin “compromise — down from the proposed $555 billion — to climate change and energy security. That’s not compromise; a more fitting description, to me, is “surrender” — to Manchin.

We will skip what was deleted from the bill, called the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, as well as non-climate related provisions, and hone in on what it offers as a solution to the existential threat facing the planet.

Most important is the goal — notice the word “goal” — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. about 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This breaks a promise made by President Biden in the campaign to reduce the emissions by 50 percent.

The bill allows for more drilling for fossil fuels on public lands. Hardly good for the environment and also breaks another promise made by Biden not to expand drilling on public lands.

Then there are stipulations to promote electric cars and solar energy. Both, however, present environmental fallout. 

Batteries for electric cars require nickel and lithium. Mining companies are destroying some of the most pristine terrain and wilderness on the planet to meet demands for nickel and lithium.

As to solar energy: It requires huge swaths of land, invading the habitats of wildlife and causing dangers to birds.

Old nuclear energy plants are to receive tax credits to help meet energy demands. The problem: Disposal. There are now a quarter of a million metric tons of highly radioactive waste sitting in storage in the world with 90 metric tons in the U.S. alone. The waste remains active for thousands of years. No one knows what to do with it.

Regarding methane emissions, the bill does not provide for reductions in this gas which accounts for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Its warming potential is 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Instead, under the bill, companies would be charged for $900 per ton for methane emissions and $1,500 in two years.

To be fair, the legislation offers tax credits for a program called “direct air capture.” This process, which is very expensive, captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries it in soil where, scientists say, it turns into stone. But it does eliminate emissions not just reduce them. The bill increases credits for capturing carbon dioxide to $150 per ton from $50 a ton. 

One last point: Much of the bill outlines tax credits for remedial actions to be taken by private industry. There is no assurance that even with tax benefits that private industry will respond.

Now for the politics. The media, en masse, reported that Manchin’s agreement to this bill reflected a reversal on his part. Huh? He got just about everything he could have wanted.

The original proposal called for an expenditure of $3.5 trillion. He had it reduced to a mere $369 billion for protection of the environment. Read those numbers again. He wanted drilling on public lands. He got it. He got funds for a natural gas pipeline which will help West Virginia, his home state. (Manchin received $331,000 in contributions from natural gas pipeline companies this year compared to only $20,000 in 2020, while Schumer received $281,000, according to press reports).

It allows coal and gas plants to continue operating although at lower emission levels.

If there was any reversal, it came from Biden, Schumer and the Democrats who signed on.

Overall, it is unsettling that we keep talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions when we should be adopting programs to eliminate them (like in direct air capture).

As I wrote in a recent book I published on the environment: if I pour water into a glass at the rate of an inch an hour and then reduce it to a half-inch an hour -- 50 percent -- the glass will still fill up. It would just take a little longer.

However, here is a much larger issue: The entire world, including participants at all 26 international summit meetings that have been held, has accepted a goal of keeping temperatures from increasing above 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels.

But, and it is a huge, huge but, we are already suffering catastrophic storms, flooding, uncontrollable wildfires, rising seas, etc. from an increase of a little more than 1 Celsius (about 1.8 Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels. 

So, how will the world be helped by another 0.4 Celsius increase?

In my research, I posed that question in an e-mail to the United Nations under whose auspices the international summit meetings on the environment have been held. Here is the answer I received from the UN press section:

“It is the parties who decide the aims and provisions [of the various agreements.] The UN secretariat is devoted to supporting the intergovernmental negotiating process on climate change. Thus, we are not in position to provide an adequate response on behalf of the Parties to the Convention.”

No, there is nothing wrong with your reading skills. I did not understand the response either. 

The point is that the entire world has accepted that we can’t avoid higher temperatures because, as some told me, the increase is already “baked in.” Nothing we can do about it. The bottom line: things are going to get worse. Indeed, many scientists believe we will reach temperature increases of 2.0 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) or even higher.

The legislation signed by Biden may be “historic” and the most comprehensive on climate ever adopted by the U.S. But it is nowhere near what is needed. We are confusing a political victory -- Democrats remaining unified to defeat Republicans -- rather than concentrating on substance. 

Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), while excited about the bill, called it a “down payment” on fighting climate change. OK, I’ll buy that. I don’t want to be a complete party pooper.

One final (dismal) point: The U.S. is only responsible for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. So, even the bill is successful in achieving all its objectives, unless the rest of the world follows suit, well…

So, if you are still inclined to celebrate, do it with just a cupcake and only one candle.

(Berl Falbaum is a veteran political journalist and author of 12 books.)

 

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