Several media outlets over the past week or so have run stories about environmental groups setting up a “circular firing squad” because more than 600 such organizations sent a letter to Congress opposing the clean electricity standard that may become a centerpiece of Democrats’ climate and infrastructure package. The standard would likely require that 80% of U.S. electricity be generated by “clean” sources (meaning those that do not release significant greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere) by 2030, and 100% by 2035.
The issue in contention: whether certain technologies like fossil fuels that capture their carbon emissions, nuclear, and biomass power should be considered sufficiently “clean,” or whether they should be eliminated from the American power generation mix for the sake of environmental justice. This potential infighting has triggered flashbacks among many advocates to their last shot at passing serious climate legislation over a decade ago, when in 2009 a proposed carbon cap and trade system died a quiet death in the Senate after having been narrowly passed in the House.
But several key players believe the two sides are not so far apart and remain optimistic that the proposed climate policy this time around could garner sufficient support to become law.
The case against not-so-clean electricity
The coalition of groups opposing a clean electricity standard includes 350.org, Oil Change International, Greenpeace, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Climate Justice Alliance, Climate Hawks Vote, California Environmental Justice Alliance, and Friends of the Earth. These groups worry that burning biomass, often in the form of wood pellets, generates significant air pollution and that, as more than 500 scientists and economists wrote to President Biden this past February, “Trees are more valuable alive than dead both for climate and for biodiversity.”
About nuclear power the organizations argued in a March 18 letter to congressional leaders that “the vast majority of uranium mines, mills, production facilities, reactors, and waste dumps are located in communities that are disproportionately Indigenous, Black, people of color, rural, and low-wealth.” It’s worth noting that the mining needed to produce the rare earth metals for numerous clean technologies like wind turbines and electric cars poses similar environmental pollution and injustice problems.
The numerous coalition members also worry that outfitting fossil fuel power plants with carbon capture technologies will extend the lifespans of those fossil fuel facilities, whose other air pollutants have long harmed public health disproportionately in communities of color. It’s also an expensive technology. Contacted via email, a spokesperson for 350.org posed the question, “Why add sequestration technology and the attendant costs when coal, oil, and gas are already becoming increasingly uncompetitive relative to wind?”
The case for keeping all options on the table
The Breakthrough Institute’s Director of Climate and Energy, Zeke Hausfather, agreed with the latter point, noting via email, “more complex and expensive carbon capture and storage plants cannot as cost-effectively ramp up and down to fill in increasingly infrequent gaps as we decarbonize the power sector, and for this reason tend not to be used that much in decarbonization models.”
But Hausfather pointed out also that, “if you believe renewables will be dirt cheap and everything else will be too expensive, there really seems no downside to technologically neutral policies like a clean electricity standard.” In addition, developing carbon capture technologies could be useful for decarbonizing the industry sector, where fossil fuels are difficult to replace in certain applications that require generating lots of heat.
There are also political constraints to consider. Most significant climate policies face overwhelming opposition from sitting congressional Republicans. Given that reality, Democrats must walk a tightrope to succeed in ferrying them through Congress, in particular the Senate. Democrats’ slim majorities require them to maintain support from nearly all party members and use the budget reconciliation process to have a chance of getting at least the 50 votes that would allow Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, to cast the tie-breaking vote that would open the way for a presidential signature.
Democratic proponents appear to be optimistic that a clean electricity standard might be able to run this gauntlet, but excluding options like carbon capture, biomass, and nuclear power could risk fierce opposition from powerful industry lobbying groups and the support of key legislators like West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
Clean vs. renewable electricity standards
The coalition instead endorsed a renewable electricity standard that would require all U.S. electricity be supplied only by wind, solar, and geothermal power by 2030 – a goal most experts consider infeasible.
Solar, wind, and geothermal sources currently account for just 11% of U.S. electricity, with another 7% from hydroelectric dams, 20% from nuclear, 19% from coal, and 40% from gas. A host of energy modeling studies have concluded that renewable energy could be scaled up to supply 80-90% of U.S. electricity demand, but meeting the final 10-20% is exceedingly challenging. The 2035 report by the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy estimated that the U.S. could achieve 90% emissions-free electricity by 2035, including 70% from wind and solar with batteries, 20% from nuclear, and 10% from gas.
Authors of a January 2021 study published in the journal AGU Advances found that in the most cost-effective scenario to reach zero-emissions by 2050, wind and solar would supply 91% of U.S. electricity generation by mid-century, with 3% each coming from hydroelectricity, nuclear, and gas with carbon capture. The study found that a 100% renewable electricity scenario would cost more than twice as much because so much more wind and solar infrastructure would need to be built to address intermittency issues. Authors of a 2018 study in the journal Joule similarly found that to reach zero emissions, electricity costs would nearly double if technologies like nuclear, bioenergy, and gas with carbon capture were excluded from the energy system. And higher energy costs disproportionately impact low-income households.
UC Santa Barbara political scientist Leah Stokes – a key architect of the clean electricity standard – also noted via email that “The problem with a renewable electricity standard is that it is extremely unlikely to pass. Advocates have been trying to pass one federally since the 1990s.” She says she agrees with Hausfather that even if included in a clean electricity standard, carbon capture technology is so expensive that it would rarely be used.
Energy system modelers, environmental organizations, and climate policymakers agree that a rapid deployment of increasingly cheap wind, solar, and battery technologies can achieve most of the decarbonization of the electricity sector. But it’s that “most” that is the real rub: There are no easy choices when it comes down to reaching net zero emissions. Ruling out certain technologies for the sake of environmental justice risks exacerbating the racial wealth gap or even torpedoing advocates’ best-yet shot at passing serious climate legislation.
The divide over carbon offsets
There are also some types of climate policies supported by congressional Republicans. For example, a bill called the Growing Climate Solutions Act has strong bipartisan support in the Senate with 25 Republican and 23 Democratic co-sponsors. (It has also been introduced in the House with co-sponsors from both parties.) The bill would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a program to reduce barriers for farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners to access carbon credit markets.
Agriculture currently accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 25% globally. But farming has the potential to become a significant climate solution, were farmers to transition to regenerative agricultural practices like no-till farming and rotating cover crops to sequester carbon in soils. Assisting farmers in selling credits representing carbon stored in soils would provide a financial incentive for the challenging transition they would face. Measuring and verifying soil carbon content is costly, and upon switching to regenerative agricultural practices, farmers face a one- to two-year decline in crop yields before the process can lead to increased profitability.
Because of the significant potential for agriculture and forests to naturally capture and sequester carbon, many environmental organizations have endorsed the Growing Climate Solutions Act. Among those supporting the effort are the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, National Audubon Society, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
On the other side of the ledger, however, Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Oil Change International, Climate Justice Alliance, Climate Hawks Vote, California Environmental Justice Alliance, and Friends of the Earth are among the larger environmental organizations opposing the Growing Climate Solutions Act. Their primary critique of the bill is similar to their opposition to carbon capture: “[carbon] credits generated will be purchased by power plants, refineries, and other polluters, which will use them to offset their emissions instead of reducing and eliminating pollution.” Carbon offsets are also notoriously difficult to quantify and verify.
For example, a recent analysis by the nonprofit group Carbon Plan estimated that by averaging tree types and densities over large forested areas, California has over-credited 30 million tons of carbon sequestration in forests. Polluters were able to purchase these offsets rather than reduce their own emissions, and approximately 30% of the offsets did not represent real carbon reductions, according to the Carbon Plan analysis. Agricultural offsets are easier to measure, although farming practices and soil carbon content would need to be monitored and verified.
The organizations opposing the Growing Climate Solutions Act argue that “ecologically regenerative farming should be incentivized in addition to, and not instead of, carbon reductions in the energy sector.” But removing carbon offset markets from the equation would necessitate government funding, which in turn would likely eliminate most or perhaps all Republican support for the policy and its chances of becoming law.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act in essence enjoys bipartisan support precisely because it would simply help connect farmers to existing revenue streams from carbon offset markets. As with the clean electricity standard, the perfect is at risk of becoming the enemy of the good.
One key point: carbon offset markets will continue to operate with or without the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would at least establish a USDA certification process in an effort to increase confidence that the offsets represent real carbon reductions.
Some opponents are more flexible than others
The Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice director, Jean Su, told Politico, “There’s this gross fallacy that we need to compromise on justice to get clean energy, and it’s not true … We can come back and get something better.” But it’s possible – perhaps even likely – that the current narrow political window represents America’s best hope for passing robust climate legislation that could put the country on track to meet its climate pledges.
Other environmental organizations appear more open to compromise. Climate Hawks Vote president and founder RL Miller views opposition to the clean electricity standard as a negotiation tactic – an effort to pressure those crafting the climate infrastructure package to take heed of the California model. In its 2018 climate law, California set a 60% renewable portfolio standard by 2030, to be followed by a 100% clean electricity standard by 2045. This approach keeps the focus on deploying cheap renewable energy in the near-term while ultimately allowing other low-carbon sources to supply the challenging final 10-20% of electricity demand.
In the end, climate advocates may have to decide whether they’re willing to risk losing their best chance at passing ambitious and consequential climate policy for the sake of chasing a more perfect solution that in the end may simply be beyond reach. But as Stokes noted, there is a lot of common ground between the groups, and once a final package is brought to a vote in Congress, most environmental organizations seem likely to support it.