In the quid pro quo that is the US Senate, Senator Joe Manchin (D-Coal) is putting his proverbial foot down. He’s miffed that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — for which he eventually voted — has been wielded primarily as a climate crisis solution. He insists that the IRA was “shaped to achieve one goal — energy security — by utilizing all our nation’s abundant resources.” He won’t hear of other raisons d’être for the IRA.
His ire is virulent and far-reaching, with the result that Manchin is threatening to shoot down any and all Biden Administration candidates who have a whiff of zero emissions advocacy in their resumes. “The Biden Administration panders to climate activists. I won’t support their nominees.”
Let’s look at some of the key remarks Senator Manchin made in the March 10 editorial and see where he makes factual statements based on current evidence and where he stretches the truth.
After all, to quote Captain Picard, “Wishing for a thing does not make it so.”
What do the experts say are the primary goals of the IRA?
- US Department of Energy concludes that the IRA’s single largest investment in climate and energy in American history enables the US to tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and secure the US position as a world leader in domestic clean energy manufacturing.
- Congressional Research Service examined the IRA and finds that it contains 8 titles, each with some provisions that directly or indirectly address issues related to climate change, including reduction of US GHG emissions or promotion of adaptation and resilience to climate change impacts.
- The World Resources Institute determines that, with the passage of the IRA, greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions are expected to reach 31% to 44% by 2030.
It’s hard to follow Manchin’s argumentation that the IRA’s climate investments correlate with partisan goals. “While the Biden Administration has continued to play political games and incorrectly frame the IRA as a climate change legislation,” he writes, “the truth is that the IRA is about securing America’s energy independence for the coming century.”
(Re)Defining Energy Security for the Decades Ahead
Yes, Senator Manchin’s statement, “European conflict, global crises, persistent inflation, rising energy prices, and the fear of a coming recession,” lists applicable, concurrent concerns for the US and the world. These challenges, he summarily deduces, are “centered on one defining issue: energy security.”
The confluence Manchin cites is affirmed by the editor-in-chief of The Economist, who explains that the world is “reeling” from shocks in geopolitics, energy, and economics. The World Economic Forum warns that “energy security demands attention not only to avoid economic and geopolitical turmoil but also to avoid undermining the energy transition itself.” The IEA notes that, although the clean energy transition is bringing a major structural change in the generation profile of electricity systems around the world, “governments, industries, and other stakeholders will need to improve their frameworks for ensuring electricity security through updated policies, regulations, and market designs.”
It seems that, even with such substantive support, Manchin’s editorial misses a major point: the IRA infuses strategic cushioning, attention, and frameworks to counterbalance tumultuous times that can strangle energy stability.
For example, a Senate summary of the IRA emphasizes US energy security “through policies to support energy reliability and cleaner production coupled with historic investments in American clean energy manufacturing to lessen our reliance on China,” all the while ensuring that the transition to a clean economy creates millions of American manufacturing jobs and is powered by US clean technologies.
Moreover, the White House’s Inflation Act Guidebook is a primer in energy security, delineating how the IRA confronts the existential threat of the climate crisis and sets forth a new era of American innovation and ingenuity. John Podesta, in the Guidebook’s introduction, explains that “President Biden sees action on climate change as an opportunity to lower costs for all Americans, create good-paying union jobs for workers, address the cumulative impacts of pollution on disadvantaged communities, and ensure America leads the global clean energy economy.”
This is a contemporary definition of energy security, for sure, a definition that emphasizes economic and social health as part of a larger picture of clean energy transformation. It is distinct from the war hawk-structural interdependence perspective that hovered throughout the Cold War and into the 21st century and to which Manchin seems to cling.
The Fossil Fuel-Renewable Energy Tango
While Manchin interprets energy security differently than many climate activists, the totality of his renewables + fossils fuels energy toolkit finds occasional ripples of congruence from the Biden Administration. Indeed, Biden’s clean energy reality is sometimes a bit opaque, and a kernel of Manchin’s energy security premise has played out.
The IRA, Manchin says, “codifies an all-of-the-above energy policy that invests in energy innovations, rather than energy elimination.” While the Biden Administration touts the IRA and its core concept of weaning the US from polluting fossil fuels, it is also promoting new oil and gas drilling on US lands and waters. ConocoPhillips has been given the go-ahead to develop 3 drilling sites at its proposed Willow project on federal land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Sure, it’s a scaled-back version of what the Trump administration had approved, but it exposes the harsh reality that the US is the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas.
Harvard Law Review suggests there may be more nuance than is initially evident in these kinds of fossil fuel drilling announcements. The HLR uses the example that the US Department of the Interior (DOI) is required to hold offshore oil and gas lease sales, but regulatory and economic factors will determine whether those auctions lead to development and extraction. A lease auction, they say, is the first step in a long regulatory process before oil or gas can be extracted. The IRA’s changes to federal offshore leasing programs, how they fit in the current legal landscape and industry trends, and what might happen next with these programs are yet to be known.
Possibilities for an Entirely New Form of Energy Security for the Next Decades
“The world needs America to reaffirm its status as not only a global military and economic superpower,” Manchin declares, “but as the global energy superpower. This was the defining purpose of the IRA, because, make no mistake, energy security is national security.” His perspective calls up reflections of the détente period of the Cold War (1969-79) between the US and the Soviet Union. It was a time in which strategic importance of cooperation for domestic and regional energy security was foregrounded due to Western bloc dependency on Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reserves.
Today, the US is reliant on Chinese rare earth elements critical for clean energy infrastructure. Current rhetoric by Manchin, Biden, and most other US politicians leans away from cooperation with China. Indeed, a new kind of energy security may be ahead that requires energy diplomacy to realize strategic, economic, and political benefits.
Radical as it may sound, investing in domestic supply lines for clean energy infrastructure and promoting regional energy projects between the US and China may be a distasteful but more stable clean energy route. This and other contingencies within the clean energy transformation may move arguments about what the IRA is and is not to entirely different dimensions.
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