Democrats weigh up carbon tax as key Biden climate proposal looks doomed

Many Democrats outraged after senator Joe Manchin moves to kill clean electricity plan

Some House and Senate Democrats, smarting from a move by Virginia senator Joe Manchin to kill a major element of President Joe Biden's climate plan, are switching to Plan B: a tax on carbon dioxide pollution.

A carbon tax, in which polluting industries would pay a fee for every ton (900kg) of carbon dioxide they emit, is seen by economists as the most effective way to cut the fossil fuel emissions that are heating the planet.

The almost certain demise of the clean electricity programme at the heart of Biden’s agenda – which comes as scientists say forceful policies are needed to avert climate change’s most devastating impacts – has prompted outrage among many Democrats and has led several to say now is the moment for a carbon tax.

"I've had a carbon pricing bill in my desk for the last three years just waiting for the time," said senator Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate finance committee. "What has been striking is the number of senators who've come to me about this since early fall – after Louisiana got clobbered with storms, the east coast flooding, the Bootleg wildfires here in my own state," said Wyden, speaking by telephone Saturday from Oregon.

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“Now there are a number of senators, key moderate senators, who’ve said they’re open to this. And a lot of House folks who have said they would support it if the Senate sends it over.”

But a carbon tax can be politically explosive. Industries could pass along their higher costs, leaving Biden and fellow Democrats vulnerable to claims that they are raising taxes on the middle class at a moment when inflation and energy prices are rising.

Environmental justice advocates say a carbon tax permits companies to continue polluting, albeit at a higher cost, which disproportionately harms low-income communities. And it is unclear if Manchin, whose vote is crucial to Biden’s legislative agenda, would support a carbon tax.

Scrambling for alternatives

As a result, the White House is scrambling to come up with alternatives to replace the $150 billion clean electricity programme that had been the centrepiece of Biden’s climate agenda until just days ago, when Manchin indicated he strongly opposed it.

That programme would have rewarded utilities that stopped burning fossil fuels in favour of wind, solar and nuclear energy, and penalised those that did not. It was intended to push the nation’s electricity sector to generate 80 per cent of its power from clean energy sources by 2030, from 40 per cent now.

As they seek alternatives, White House officials are also weighing a voluntary version of a cap-and-trade programme, which would create a market for polluters to buy and sell allowances for a certain amount of emissions. They are also considering adding to the $300 billion in clean energy tax incentives and credits that remain in the Bill, while looking for ways to salvage some parts of the clean electricity programme.

A White House official on Saturday said staff members were still engaging with members of Congress and had not yet agreed to a final version of climate provisions.

The cut to the climate change programme could be among the first consequential decisions in what will very likely be a painful process for Democrats as they pare their ambitious $3.5 trillion domestic policy package. Manchin and another Democrat, senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they cannot support that spending level.

Over the next two weeks, the White House will negotiate with Democrats over cuts to dozens of programmes, as lawmakers try to whittle the original Bill to about $2 trillion.

Biden suggested on Friday that one of his agenda’s signature items – two years of free community college – was also on the chopping block, and progressive lawmakers worried about whether plans to provide paid family leave and expand Medicare to include vision, dental and hearing benefits could survive.

Biden and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have set an October 31st deadline for a deal that would enable Democrats to pass the Bill with their razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Manchin objections

In recent days, as White House officials were trying to forge a deal, Manchin told them he would not support any legislation that includes a clean electricity programme. Manchin, whose state is a major coal producer and who has financial ties to the coal industry, has said abandoning fossil fuels will harm the country’s energy independence and would make climate change worse.

Once his opposition to the clean electricity programme became public on Friday, several fellow Democrats expressed outrage. “We have a moral obligation and a governing mandate to pass policy that addresses climate change,” the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote on Twitter. “Inaction is not an option.”

For weeks, progressive Democrats have been holding rallies chanting “No climate, no deal!” to pressure the White House to include strong climate provisions. Several of those rallies focused on the importance of the clean electricity programme.

Congress “cannot afford to gut” the climate provisions in the Bill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “This issue is bigger than ideology. It is a moral imperative for humanity and our planet’s future to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions,” she wrote. “There are many ways to do it, but we can’t afford to give up.”

Senator Jeff Merkley has been involved with the "No climate, no deal" rallies. "Listen, my state is burning up. We're losing our snowpack, the ocean's acidifying, affecting our shellfish," he said on Saturday. "This is a code red."

Merkley said he would not vote for a reconciliation package that did not have “significant climate provisions”, but he said he was open to any option that cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030 and produced carbon-free electricity by 2035.

He suggested additional wind and solar subsidies or proposals to speed up the transition to clean energy vehicles. "The Biden team is going to have to lay out how they're going to meet those two goals," he said, "because that's the way we stay on track." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times