|Efforts to turn surface transportation bills "green" failed in the last Congress, but climate change concerns loom large in upcoming infrastructure politics. Above, a Texas-sized traffic jam in 2014. Photo: faungg's photos, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
Backgrounder: Infrastructure Week All Year — But Will That Infrastructure Be Green?
By Joseph A. Davis
You may want to ditch the jokes about “Infrastructure Week.”
Conventional wisdom currently holds that the next big legislative project that the governing Democrats will mount will be some kind of mammoth infrastructure bill. That means infrastructure policy will be a live and crucial story much of the year.
But if you are an environmental journalist, it is very likely to impact your locale and region, and so will impact the people you report for.
A poor national ‘report card’
First off, you should know that the nation’s infrastructure is in bad shape.
The Texas freeze of February 2021 reminded us of that, as it knocked out unwinterized natural gas pipes, broke water pipes and left people without power or water.
The experts have been trying
to warn us about infrastructure
problems for years.
The experts over at the American Society of Civil Engineers have been trying to warn us about infrastructure problems for years. They put out another comprehensive report card on U.S. infrastructure on March 3. The overall grade (which may have been merciful) was … C minus.
It’s not just the pipes, powerlines, roads and bridges. It’s the badly maintained levees that strain to protect us from worsening floods as climate wreaks unprecedented weather. A water main, they point out, breaks every two minutes.
It’s the hazardous waste sites unable to protect people from pollution during mounting storms and floods.
It’s the public drinking water and wastewater systems failing from old age.
It’s the aging, underfunded schools without HVAC systems adequate to protect kids from COVID-19 — much less seat them all at safe distances, or protect them from asbestos or lead paint.
Legislation still only aspirational
Let’s get real: There is no actual infrastructure bill right now — just fragments and visions and aspirations.
And if you thought passing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package was hard for the Dems (approved on the Senate side, for instance, without a single vote to spare), just wait until the infrastructure bill arrives.
Still, the nation has already started the discussion: the administration, Congress members, interest groups and players of all kinds are already playing.
President Biden at this point seems to hope it can be bipartisan (as infrastructure bills past have been). But because Congress could be closely divided, it may have to be done on a budget reconciliation vehicle (there are only a limited number of opportunities for this).
Since paying for it may be the biggest issue, reconciliation may be the proper vehicle. But the rules of reconciliation may also limit some of the wilder policy initiatives people want the vehicle to carry.
Regardless, it will be complex and time-consuming because multiple committees will need to be involved. Yet if history is a guide, it has a fair chance of passing.
A climate policy stand-in?
Perhaps the real question is: Will infrastructure legislation try to be a stand-in for the major climate bill Congress maybe ought to pass but probably won’t be able to?
Remember that not everything
calling itself green infrastructure
will be worthy of the name.
First off, remember that not everything calling itself green infrastructure will be worthy of the name.
And certainly don’t believe everything they tell you. Much of what hits your inbox on infrastructure will come from PR outfits and politicos, and much of what you need to know will be, um, hidden from view until the deal is already done. Reporting will be needed.
But in the end, the answer to this question matters a great deal, because the planet faces a climate crisis. It matters because serious national action to control the climate crisis will require legislation — probably major legislation — no matter how good a job the Biden administration does with executive action alone.
The good news is that market trends (aka the “energy transition”) may help solve some of the climate problem, despite incompetence, dishonesty or outright greed.
The bad news is that so-called “free” markets — or the freebooting, blindfolded piñata party that can be the worst of American hybrid capitalism — may not only not solve the problem alone, but could just aggravate it.
See-sawing climate politics
When it comes to climate legislation, as opposed to infrastructure legislation, then, it’s worth a little history. Don’t forget, the last time Congress tried to pass a major climate bill, it was a failure.
Recall that much of the early Obama presidency was given over to this project. And what ultimately emerged was the so-called Waxman-Markey bill, a cap-and-trade plan actually modelled on Republican party ideas.
And while it passed the Democrat-controlled House narrowly in June 2009, it died in the Senate. Even though Dems also had a majority in the Senate, fossil-fuel interests and the filibuster were enough to stall the bill. Obama thereafter shifted to executive action.
Then in 2019, the Democrats won back the House and a then-unknown group called the Sunrise Movement staged a sit-in in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, calling for a Green New Deal. The big idea was to address the climate crisis by switching the nation to clean energy and to solve social justice problems by creating millions of clean energy jobs.
Republicans immediately used it to pillory Democrats as socialists. But the youth climate movement (Sunrise and its allies) prevailed (mostly) in the 2020 Democratic process of choosing Joe Biden as the party’s presidential nominee.
Biden won with a fortified climate platform, it’s true. But a 50-50 Senate doesn’t leave him much leeway. Especially when the Energy Committee Chair Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and ranking member John Barrasso, R-Wyo., are from the two biggest coal states.
Punting on the last highway bill
Infrastructure legislation is a different beast, one that is not usually a big lift for Congress per se. Congress has been passing it regularly and successfully (and on a bipartisan basis) for decades or longer.
|Electric vehicle charging stations at a highway rest stop in Maryland. Such facilities are considered key to climate-friendly infrastructure policy. Photo: Earth and Main, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
For instance, big water project authorizations and highway bills come at fairly regular intervals (along with separate appropriations). They exemplify the basic model of distributive politics, the “omnibus” that everybody rides home.
Every member (almost) gets their district’s pet project into the bill, the big dams and highways get named after the committee chairmen — and everybody votes for it. It works. Even as Congress has devolved into an uncompromising partisan snake-pit, this approach has held up well.
But 2020 was unusual, insofar as Congress was thoroughly bollixed up.
A water infrastructure authorization, known as WRDA, did go through, at a modest $9.9 billion level, attached to its final big continuing resolution. But a “surface transportation” bill the House did pass in 2020 was something entirely different.
Uncorked by the House Transportation and Infrastructure in June 2020, it was very large ($494 billion, twice the normal size) and rather green. Along with the roads and bridges, it included a lot of public transit, passenger rail and greenhouse gas reduction measures.
But there was trouble in Utopia. Republicans never bought into it and so only a scaled-down, less-green, one-year rollover passed the House that summer on a party-line vote. And ultimately Congress, instead of passing a full highway bill, which was due, just proposed a one-year extension and tacked it onto the continuing resolution.
In other words, Congress punted to 2021.
Can infrastructure address climate?
Keep in mind that there are many worthy environmental infrastructure projects which do not have much to do with climate.
A big example is wastewater. The federal construction grants program for sewage treatment under the Clean Water Act in the 1970s and ’80s was the second-largest U.S. public works program ever (interstate highways being No. 1). It still exists as a loan program — diminished in size, with unmet need.
This approach could extend as well to drinking water, another unmet need, which goes beyond just replacing lead pipes. Or stormwater and combined sewers.
Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps concept could, of course, help climate by planting trees. Or it could do much-needed upkeep of parks.
The Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program is another example. It could be sped up with more money — which originally was supposed to come from a tax on petrochemicals.
All this is “infrastructure,” it’s true. But roads and bridges, much less waterway locks and dredging, while they can get votes and create jobs, do not really do much for the climate.
To address climate, a whole different range of infrastructure investment would be needed. It might include:
- Federal subsidies and regulatory mandates to encourage buildout of a grid that could move renewable electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed.
- More federal support for R&D on renewable energy technologies like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, wave energy and (controversially) biomass.
- More financial and regulatory support for non-combustion transportation like electric cars and bicycles. Not to mention charging stations everywhere.
- Funding highways via gas tax increases, which would de-incentivize travel by combustion-driven vehicles. Or carbon taxes (which may be an oil company ruse in sheep’s clothing, disguising deregulation).
- Financial and regulatory support for many improvements in energy efficiency — from the appliance standards repealed by Trump to building weatherization.
- Focus on buildings, a form of infrastructure that consumes lots of fossil energy.
- Focus on resiliency of existing and new infrastructure in the face of weather extremes brought on by climate.
Questions to ask
As you cover this story in coming months, here are some story ideas to pursue in your locale:
- What projects in your locality, state or region might justifiably go into a federal bill for infrastructure? Are they climate-related?
- Ask local government officials (mayors, council members, planners) what the community’s greatest infrastructure needs are. Will that freeway widening help or hurt the climate?
- Call your representative or senator. Ask them what infrastructure projects they will be requesting from committee leaders assembling infrastructure legislation.
- What impact do your state and local laws, and building and zoning codes, have on climate change or people’s adaptation to it? For example: gas hookups.
- Is your community catering to increased car traffic — or discouraging it?
- What fuels or energy sources do your local electric utilities use? What do they plan for the future?
- Is the “clean energy” infrastructure being promoted in your area real or illusory? For example, is “carbon capture and storage” being promoted by oil and gas companies? Why?
- Are local governments or companies pledging “net zero” schemes? Will these be achieved by emission reductions or by offsets? How will they be enforced? Is natural gas infrastructure being sold as “clean”?
- By the way: How will we pay for all this? Increase the federal tax on gasoline? Impose a “wealth tax” on the billionaires? Federal borrowing? User fees? Other? What political obstacles will this raise?
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 11. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.