Geophysicist Michael Wysession, professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, teaches a popular undergraduate course called “Energy and the Environment” and is author of The Great Courses lecture series “The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained.”
Well, I was mostly right. Up until Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, signaled interest in reviving President Joe Biden’s energy and climate bill, things weren’t looking so good for my predictions. In January 2021, a week before Biden’s inauguration, WashU had a half-dozen faculty members make predictions about what Biden’s term in office would look like. I made a set of nine predictions concerning energy and climate based on claims that Biden had made during and after the election. After 19 months, things were not looking good for Biden’s claims (or for my predictions!), but the passage in August of the truly astounding (and grossly misnamed) Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has changed everything, and I would say I now have a passing grade on it. The IRA is not likely to do much in the way of reducing inflation, but it is revolutionary in its impacts on U.S. industries concerning green energy and, in the process, efforts to reduce the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels (view this list of IRA investments in green energy and climate). Below are my nine predictions with an assessment on how well I did.
My Jan. 15, 2021, predictions on Biden’s 9-point energy plan:
1. Biden said: “Reverse the Trump damage and then some.” Me: This is all doable.
My predictions were a mixed bag on this, but I did get some things right. Biden’s Executive Order 13990 (May 1, 2020) will push the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for transportation fuel economy standards to a national average of 49 mpg for passenger cars and light trucks by 2026. That’s a 10% efficiency increase over 2021, with new vehicles getting 33% more miles to the gallon (than for 2021). It’s just an executive order, so the next time Trump or someone like him gets elected, it will likely be immediately reversed. But that’s not the case for legislation such as the IRA, which is hard to undo. The IRA also cuts back on methane emissions with a $1.5 billion program that includes payments to companies that cut methane emissions and penalties for those that don’t.
But I was wrong about bans on new oil and gas leases. The IRA requires that bids be made available for these leases on federal lands — both in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska — with no protections for delicate environments such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This was part of the compromise demanded by Manchin. However, it’s not likely to make much of a difference: Most oil and gas now comes from private lands, and there isn’t much of an appetite for leases on federal lands. Same goes for offshore. Last November, Biden offered up oil and gas leases on 80 million acres of offshore territory, the largest such offering in history. The result? Bids on only about 1.7 million acres. This new concession looks good for oil and gas industries but won’t really mean much.
I originally predicted that Manchin, with his long ties to fossil fuels industries, would be a big concern for Biden, and I was right. But I didn’t foresee a land war in Europe focused on oil and gas reserves and pipelines. Given Russia’s previous recent aggressions toward the Crimea, which contains most of Ukraine’s petroleum reserves (and whose failure to be captured during WWII was the downfall of the Germans), perhaps we all should have.
I was mostly correct here. Only one shining sun:
2. Biden: “Push legislation toward economy-wide net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” Me: Possible
Before August, this wasn’t looking good for me. However, the Russian war on Ukraine is pushing Europe and the U.S. toward complete energy independence from Russia, which means going all-out for all domestic energy sources at all costs. This put some additional pressure on Manchin to support green energy sources (as part of national energy independence) and also on the rest of the Democrats to be more open to domestic oil and gas. Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November 2021, had already taken serious steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions by allocating $73 billion for power infrastructure and clean energy transmission, $66 billion for modernized passenger and freight rail, $39 billion for public transit, $7.5 billion for clean school buses and ferries and $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Through a variety of investments in domestic energy production and manufacturing and clean energy incentives totaling $369 billion, the IRA puts the U.S. on target to reduce greenhouse emissions about 40% below 2005 levels by 2030 (compared with 30% without it). Although getting rid of the other 60% over the following two decades will be much harder — likely requiring significant advances in NETs (negative emission technologies that remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere) — the IRA puts us well on track for emissions reductions. The IRA also provides some incentives that will increase greenhouse gas emissions, such as the oil and gas leases mentioned above, expanded tax credits for carbon capture technology development (which will allow coal or gas-burning power plants to keep operating, although with lower emissions) and proposed elimination of natural gas pipeline regulatory hurdles. However, the IRA is still likely to prevent about 25 tons of carbon emissions for every new ton of carbon it produces.
Perhaps most cleverly, the bill legally makes carbon dioxide (CO2) a pollutant, creating a stronger position for an impending show-down with the Supreme Court, which recently struck down the EPA’s ability to regulate CO2. This new provision is still largely flying under the radar. The various Clean Air Acts never legally included CO2 with the other regulated air pollutants. Obama was unable to do this, so he passed a rickety executive order for it. Trump rescinded it, Biden put it back, and the ultra-conservative Supreme Court struck it down on the basis that no legislation had declared carbon dioxide a pollutant. Well, not anymore. The IRA amends the Clean Air Acts to define the CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels as an “air pollutant,” and this language now gives the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Game changer!
Two shining suns and mic drop! This lofty goal is back to being Possible again.
3. Biden: “Re-engage with other countries on climate efforts, including rejoining the Paris Accords.” Me: Likely
Biden signed back onto the Paris Accords in his first day of office and the U.S. was officially rejoined 30 days later. But after the Democratic party in-fighting surrounding the Build Back Better bill and its resounding defeat in the Senate, this was looking to be meaningless. How could the U.S. play any kind of international leadership role on climate and climate change if we couldn’t make any progress ourselves? However, the enormous financial investment in reducing greenhouse gases provided by the IRA has changed all this and we are now back in a position to play a leadership role in combating climate change. We may even actually reach our Paris Accords goal of cutting emissions by 50% (below 2005 levels) by 2030, because the many clean energy tax credits in the IRA will create a stable and predictable investment environment for continued innovations (e.g., expect more solar and wind farms, more power transmission lines and more innovations on battery energy storage).
Two shining suns!
4. Biden: “Invest $400 billion over 10 years in clean energy and innovation.” Me: Too ambitious. Partial success.
I didn’t think this could happen, given how weak the economy was at the time and with unemployment still so high. Well, I was wrong. The economy is now in much better shape. All the jobs lost at the onset of the pandemic have now been regained. Even with the stock market correction at the start of 2022, the S&P 500 was up by 14% 19 months after I penned those predictions (Jan 15, 2021). Inflation is still high but has been steadily dropping. More importantly, the predicted $369 billion in IRA investments in clean energy and climate change, by far the largest such investment in history, combined with the $193 billion for green transportation and clean energy infrastructure in last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, provides a total of $562 billion for clean energy and green innovation.
I was way too pessimistic. One thundercloud for me (but I’m happy to be wrong!)
5. Biden: “Accelerate the deployment of clean energy technology within the U.S. economy.” Me: Very Likely
It turns out I was right, but not for the reasons I thought. Biden hasn’t been able to create the ARPA-C program (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate) that he touted, which I really thought would happen. But the IRA is brilliantly structured in such a way that it best stimulates U.S. green energy industries, with tax incentives for growth instead of penalties and carbon taxes for holdouts. There is also a very strong emphasis on U.S., with investments and tax breaks requiring a transition to U.S.-made parts and minerals mined in the U.S. or our trading partners (i.e., not China). For example, the existing $7,500 EV vehicle tax rebates currently disincentivize U.S. growth — they are closed for Tesla and GM (who have already exceeded their allowed 200,000 EV car sales targets) but are open to foreign EV manufacturers. Exactly reversed of what should happen! Well, the new IRA incentives remove the caps on Tesla and GM and require that cars are made in the U.S. to be eligible. They also have cost limits to push car companies to make EVs affordable to working-class Americans (very clever!). We have also seen the production of U.S. solar industries undercut by a flood of cheap Chinese PV panels. The new IRA incentives will put the U.S. solar industry back into the game.
Very likely indeed! Two shining suns!
6. Biden: “Make environmental justice a priority across all federal agencies.” Me: They’ll get the job done.
I was overly optimistic here. It hasn’t been for a lack of effort on the part of Jen Granholm, secretary of energy, for whom environmental justice has long been a high priority. It’s just that too much of her time has been taken up doing things like touring West Virginia coal mines with Manchin. The IRA funds that address the historic inequities of health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels on minority communities are very small compared with other areas (such as manufacturing) but are still revolutionary in that they are the first of their kind. The IRA provides $20 billion for a “green bank” to provide clean energy projects, particularly in poor and underserved communities. The $14.8 billion for air pollution reduction specifies grants for disadvantaged communities. There is $5.3 billion set aside for struggling farmers, including $2.2 billion for those who have been harmed by discrimination and $0.5 billion dedicated to tribal Native American communities for a variety of climate and energy issues. It makes no headway on addressing the large shortfall on our pledged contributions to other countries to help them battle their energy and climate inequities, and more is definitely needed, but this is still a remarkable start.
One sun is better than none.
7. Biden: “Hold polluters accountable.” Me: Not likely, but may scare corporations to change old practices.
Sadly, I got this right. The IRA is almost all carrots and no sticks. True, there are some penalties for methane leaks, but they start at just $900 per metric ton of methane and increase to only $1,500/ton after two years. While this is, in fact, the first time the U.S. government has ever directly imposed a charge, fee or tax on greenhouse gas emissions, it is small enough that it will have a sting like a mosquito bite on an elephant.
However, as green energy technologies become cheaper — reducing the costs of clean cars and trucks — the IRA sets the groundwork for more stringent future emissions standards. And any future administration seeking to roll back those standards will have a difficult time explaining why the industries cannot meet them if the economics already show they can.
8. Biden: “Create 10 million good-paying, middle-class, clean-energy union jobs.” Me: Too ambitious; maybe in eight years.
I think I’ll be close on this one. The billions of dollars now available for American production of batteries, EVs and clean energy infrastructure will indeed create a large number of good American jobs. It is very significant that the IRA investments had the support of a broad coalition of labor and business — including manufacturing, auto and power companies — so it’s not just scientists and environmentalists shouting for climate policy (this bodes well for future climate legislation!). A study by the BlueGreen Alliance from the UMass Political Economy Research Institute predicts that the IRA will create more than 9 million good jobs over the next decade, an average of almost one million jobs per year, with more than 6 million by grants, loans and tax credits and nearly 3 million by the new loan guarantee authority of the DOE. And, the IRA will also help keep millions of existing clean energy jobs. Add to this the 0.4 million job-decades (a labor unit that parses the total of short-term jobs into the number of good full-time jobs that would last a decade), and you are pretty close to 10 million jobs in a decade.
Biden was a bit optimistic. I was close. One shining sun:
9. Biden: “Repair fossil fuel industry communities.” Me: Likely
I knew there would be concessions here because Biden needed Manchin’s vote, but I had no idea how well Manchin would play his cards on this; he both gets lots of concessions for his state of West Virginia and comes out looking like the man who saved the IRA. On Manchin’s own Senate website he even calls it “Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act.” There are lots of things here that will help “coal country.” The IRA permanently extends the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (valued at $1.2 billion) to preserve health care benefits for coal miners and their families. There’s $20 billion for a “green bank” for clean energy investments particularly in poor communities, $13.2 billion for clean energy tech investments specifically in rural areas and $4 billion reserved for impacted coal communities. More significantly, however, the IRA repairs fossil fuel industries themselves with a $10 billion list of supports to keep them part of our future national energy budget by reducing their carbon footprint. I didn’t see this coming, but it was all part of Manchin’s shrewd negotiations. There’s $8 billion for generating hydrogen from fossil fuels. There’s $5 billion to upgrade existing coal and methane plants to improve efficiency and install CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and sequestration) equipment, supporting up to $250 billion in future loan guarantees. A CCUS tax credit will provide direct pay to fossil fuel plants for the first five years. Many experts think that CCUS will never be profitable and never be scaled-up enough to make a difference in atmospheric carbon. But it doesn’t really matter. If this is what it took to get everything else funded, power to both Joes.
More than I expected. One fossil fuel power plant for me:
We are not even two years into Biden’s term and his accomplishments in the areas of clean energy and climate have been extraordinary. And this is with a 50/50 split Senate, an antagonistic Supreme Court and an extremely well-funded misinformation and disinformation campaign from factions on the right. How much more Biden gets done depends on the outcome of the midterm elections, but his approval rating should be much higher than it is.