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Tina Casey headshot

Activism Works: The Climate Bill is Back, For Now

Corporate activism has made a difference on the new climate bill; young staffers who will be affected by climate change also made their voices heard.
By Tina Casey

Low water levels at Millerton Lake in California's San Joaquin Valley

Build Back Better was President Biden’s signature economic development, social justice and climate bill, and it was declared all but dead in the water just two weeks ago. However, in a surprising twist the bill is back on again. Several S&P 100 corporations can take part of the credit, but many more businesses, activists and other stakeholders had a hand in ensuring that climate action remains a central pillar of the newly revived legislation. 

Build Back Better comes back to life

Build Back Better came back from the dead only because U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) unexpectedly flipped his “no” vote to a “yes.” He announced the flip in a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on July 27. The move surprised everyone. That includes all 50 Republican senators, who still plan to vote against the bill as a block. 

Nevertheless, with Senator Manchin joining the 49 other Democratic Senators, and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding 51st vote, the Democrats have enough votes to pass the measure on their own. The only remaining question mark is Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, whose intentions are unknown as of this writing.

The notoriously demanding Manchin had some demands for the current version of Build Back Better. It is a much less ambitious bill than the one introduced last fall. In addition, the name has now been changed to the more timely title of “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.” Still, the bill received an enthusiastic reception from business groups and other organizations that supported Build Back Better.

Corporate activism makes a difference on the new climate bill

Many businesses turned out to lobby for the climate bill provisions in Build Back Better when it was first introduced. The American Sustainable Business Network, Ceres, American Clean Power and the Solar Energy Industries Association were among the organizations that assembled public letters to Congress signed by hundreds of companies.

That level of corporate activity helped to overcome the influence of powerful trade organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pushed against Build Back Better in force. Corporate lobbying also helped to counterbalance Manchin’s personal and political ties to the fossil energy industry. 

As for S&P 100 companies, a recent analysis by the firm InfluenceMap indicates that, as a group, they could have done much more to support the climate provisions in Build Back Better in public.

However, InfluenceMap did identify a group of S&P 100 companies that consistently lobbied on behalf of the climate bill provisions. This group of 14 companies has had an outsized influence on the decarbonization movement, including Apple, Amazon, Salesforce, Exelon, Alphabet, Intel, Meta, Microsoft, Netflix, PepsiCo, Walmart, NextEra, General Motors and Ford Motor Company.

Last year, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tapped Microsoft for its annual Green Power Leadership awards. EPA cited the company’s internal decarbonization efforts as well as its overall commitment to electrification, and its support for under-resourced communities.

The influence of employee activism and organized labor

Additional pressure on Manchin came from Congressional staffers. On July 12, CNN and other media reported that more than 200 staffers had taken the extraordinary step of signing onto a public letter, pleading with Democratic leadership to pass a climate bill.

“The silence on expansive climate justice policy on Capitol Hill this year has been deafening. We write to distance ourselves from your dangerous inaction," they wrote.

To the extent that staffers represent a younger generation than members of Congress, the letter underscored a growing generational divide on climate policy. The message is especially relevant to those in Manchin’s generation. He will turn 75 this month, exceeding the average age of current U.S. senators by a good 10 years.

The employee activism within Congress has been mirrored by labor organizations acting on behalf of workers. In particular, the United Mine Workers of America union is beginning to play a key role in changing the public conversation around fossil energy jobs.

The number of coal miners in the U.S. has been falling precipitously for generations. Nevertheless, coal miners still hold a powerful position in the media landscape, as capably demonstrated by former President Trump during his 2016 campaign.

The message of coal jobs resonates especially loudly in such coal producing states like Senator Manchin’s home state of West Virginia. However, UMWA is among the labor organizations that have seen the energy transition writing on the wall. U.S. coal jobs are not coming back, regardless of Trump’s promises.

UMWA got a start on supporting the decarbonization movement in the spring of 2021, when it lobbied on behalf of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Its support was conditional on the bill’s provisions for black lung and other coal miner health care. UMWA also emphasized that the bill would help create new jobs in communities abandoned by the coal industry. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill passed last fall. 

Meanwhile, UMWA also lobbied in support of Build Back Better. Last December the union gently chided Manchin for holding out against that version of the climate bill. In a public statement, union’s leadership cited the bill’s “tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of coal miners who have lost their jobs.”

“We support that and are ready to help supply those plants with a trained, professional workforce,” they emphasized.

Losing the support of coal miners in a coal state was a bad look for Manchin. Nevertheless, he continued to play the holdout card for months, until he finally let go.  

After Manchin announced his support for the re-named Inflation Reduction Act, UMWA issued a follow-up statement that emphasized the bill’s health provisions. They also added this observation:

“We are also pleased to see that provisions were included in the IRA that will extend tax credits to renewable energy supply chain manufacturers that build plants in the coalfields, which will be a big step toward providing good jobs to these distressed communities.”

The new energy tug-of-war

UMWA also took note of some provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that benefit fossil energy industries, especially in the area of carbon capture.

“The enhanced tax credits for carbon capture and storage included in the legislation will also be a boon for coalfield jobs,” they noted.

That remains to be seen. Carbon capture and sequestration technology has yet to be proven at scale, and new green hydrogen technology is beginning to compete with coal, oil and natural gas alike.

In addition, clean power developers are beginning to seek new opportunities in West Virginia. As noted by UMWA, existing coal fields can provide sites for clean power production. Long duration energy storage is another option for development on coal fields. The state also possesses unique geothermal resources that have yet to be tapped.

Advocates for fossil energy with carbon capture got their carveout in the new climate bill, but it’s not a magic carpet. They will have to compete for space in a new energy landscape, in West Virginia and elsewhere, where job creation does not go hand in hand with sickness, poverty and environmental catastrophe.

Image credit: Simon Hurry/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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