The Congressional Energy Package Is an Important Building Block, but More Innovation and Action Against Climate Change Is Needed

The omnibus energy bill comprises bipartisan bills from the House and Senate, and includes measures addressing everything from renewables and efficiency to nuclear energy and carbon capture.

On Monday, Congress passed a massive spending package, which now awaits the president’s signature (note: the bill has since been signed into law). Appended to that bill was a similarly momentous achievement, the first energy bill in over a decade, a version of the American Energy Innovation Act of 2020 from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), with contributions from many of their colleagues on both sides of the aisle in both the Senate and the House. The victory was many months in the making, with the House passing a version in September after the Senate failed to reach an agreement to schedule a floor vote in March. While this bill is far from perfect, it is a net win for energy innovation and the climate, and Audubon is proud to support it.

The omnibus energy bill is comprised of bipartisan bills from the House and Senate, and includes measures addressing everything from renewables and efficiency to nuclear energy and carbon capture. There is something for nearly everyone to like; Audubon was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of the Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act, the Clean Industrial Technology Act (CITA), and a reauthorization of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) that will increase funding to support the development promising cutting-edge energy technologies in the coming years. Other provisions, including those promoting grid modernization and refocusing the priorities of some of DOE’s research and development programs, will help align our federal innovation strategy toward building solutions to climate change.

The energy package will provide a boost to technologies like wind, solar, and battery storage, spurring further efficiencies and price reductions for technologies that are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels. We are particularly pleased to see language encouraging the Department of Energy to prioritize projects in economically distressed communities and areas disproportionately impacted by pollution, as well as technologies and strategies to mitigate any effects on birds and other wildlife. And a companion “tax extenders” package acknowledges and addresses the detrimental impact the current recession has had on the renewables sector, delaying the phasedown for solar and wind tax credits and extending the credit for offshore wind until 2025. These cleaner energy technologies have become increasingly important, as the COVID-19 pandemic has created dual crises of respiratory illness and unemployment. Supporting further development and deployment of renewables can create new jobs while eliminating the harmful pollution that has long disproportionately impacted communities of color. Furthermore, Audubon’s science shows that climate change is the greatest threat to birds, and we support all forms of energy that avoid, minimize, and mitigate any negative impacts to birds and other wildlife.

 The package also includes new efforts to modernize the electric grid, such as demonstration initiatives for smart grids and microgrids and evaluating best practices for integrating regional transmission systems. These policies will make it easier and more cost-effective to get to 100 percent clean energy. By directing DOE to focus sectors that are hard to decarbonize -- like heavy industry, which so far does not have a coordinated federal strategy -- the legislation is laying a foundation for significant emissions reduction potential in the years to come. And, most significantly from a climate perspective, the omnibus bill includes a requirement to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of “superpollutants” that are thousands of times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The bill also includes some provisions from the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, a bipartisan bill that aims to coordinate and increase deployment of renewables on public lands. The bill creates a new Renewable Energy Coordination Office to improve project permitting as well as a new goal of authorizing permits for 25 gigawatts of renewables on public lands by 2025. Notably missing from the final bill, however, are provisions that would have shared revenue from the projects with states, counties, and a conservation fund.

The bill’s shortcomings are noteworthy as well, unfortunately. The lack of sufficient environmental safeguards around mining for critical minerals and incentivizing additional coal mining give us pause, and we hope these can be mitigated through thoughtful oversight and regulation. And environmental justice issues are conspicuously absent—even those modest efforts that were included in the earlier House bill did not make it into the final bill.

In a planetary emergency, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and any advances are welcome. But we also cannot allow the passage of the American Energy Innovation Act of 2020 to distract us from more comprehensive and ambitious policies, or use it to excuse a lack of urgency in advancing those solutions. This bill is an important building block, but it is just that—a building block. It provides critical investments to improve the technology we know we will need, but does so without setting new goals or restrictions around emissions reductions, clean energy deployment, or clean-up of historic pollution. We look forward to working with new and returning members of Congress next year to formulate additional climate and energy policy that meets the scale of the problem.