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Biden's Climate Plan, Part Of The Budget Package, Is Stalled In Congress

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden wants his climate plan to be a reality, but this all depends on a big $3.5 trillion budget package that is stalled in Congress. Jeff Brady is part of NPR's climate team. He's been looking into all this. Good morning, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What are the details of note in this package? What is standing out to you?

BRADY: Well, the climate parts of this big package, they include financial carrots and sticks that aim to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the climate. The president's goal is an 80% reduction from the power sector by 2030. A centerpiece is the Clean Electricity Performance Program, and that pays utilities to switch to climate-friendly electricity, away from things like coal and natural gas, and towards wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear. And if utilities fail to do that fast enough, they could face government fines.

KING: Fines is interesting. Electric companies are very powerful businesses. What are they saying?

BRADY: Well, there's general support for some big concerns, but there are some - also some concerns that the pace of transitioning away from dirtier fuels might make it more difficult to keep the lights on without putting big rate hikes into effect. Right now, the U.S. electricity grid already is getting cleaner as more renewable energy comes on the grid, but it's just not happening fast enough. This program would more than double the rate. Utilities would have to add at least 4% clean power every year. That may not sound like much, but Nick Akins - he's president and CEO of American Electric Power - he says that number has to be smaller.

NICK AKINS: Four percent is just sort of out-of-the-park aspirational. To make those kinds of changes every year, you're talking about a fourfold increase in the amount of renewable energy in this country in a matter of eight years.

BRADY: He says there are supply chain issues with the pandemic, and those would get worse if every utility is trying to build more clean power at the same time. But that 4% is aimed at meeting commitments under the Paris climate agreement. So without it, emission reductions would have to come from somewhere else.

KING: Sure. Now, this budget package, as we've been reporting over the past couple days, was supposed to have been voted on by now. What are the risks it won't pass?

BRADY: You know, that is a risk, and there's a lot of people opposed to this. Some of the big losers in this program would be fossil fuels. They're lobbying against it. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who has ties to the coal industry, has been skeptical of the Clean Electricity Program. And this will come up before the committee that he chairs.

Still, environmentalists say they're optimistic because Manchin is still engaged, trying to work out differences. Melinda Pierce with the Sierra Club says she's optimistic because she knows the climate issue is urgent.

MELINDA PIERCE: The science says we got to get this done. This is our moment. The political stars are aligned. This is our last best chance to really secure the kind of investments we need to drive action on climate change.

BRADY: And beyond the Clean Electricity Program, there's a long list of budget items designed to reduce the country's emissions. There's tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles, a tax on methane, which is a really potent climate-warming gas, and boosting public transportation

KING: On the science, Jeff, when you take all of that together, is it thought to be enough to start slowing down climate change?

BRADY: You know, it's really just a start for what is a massive job. Most of this is focused on the power sector, and it would go a long way toward reducing emissions there. But there's still the largest source of emissions - the transportation sector. The country still has a lot of work to do to reach that Biden administration goal of zeroing out all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By having a solid plan, though, the president hopes to convince other countries at that big climate summit meeting in about a month to take aggressive action on their own.

KING: NPR's Jeff Brady. Thanks, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.