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Congress set to pass the ‘biggest action ever taken’ to address climate change

Congress is poised to pass what supporters consider to be the most expansive package of provisions ever implemented to deal with climate change.

The measure, the Energy Act of 2020, was included in the 5,593-page pandemic relief and government spending bill expected to be passed this week. It’s the product of years of work and difficult negotiations from interest groups and members of both parties.

“This package demonstrates the progress that is possible when businesses, environmental groups, labor, and policymakers work together to find solutions on difficult issues,” said Marty Durbin, senior vice president of policy at the Chamber of Commerce, who hailed the package as the first significant energy bill since 2007 and the “biggest action Congress has ever taken to address climate change.”

The package is headlined by a measure to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a climate-warming refrigerant, by 85% by 2035, which would be one of the most significant emissions-reducing measures ever passed. It is the only major bill in recent memory that directly sets out reductions in a specific greenhouse gas.

HFCs account for a small percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere but are considered more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The measure would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate HFCs consistent with a global deal limiting the refrigerants, known as the Kigali Amendment. Meeting the agreement’s targets could avoid around half a degree Celsius of global warming, according to scientists’ estimates.

The package also dedicates $35 billion on provisions to research, develop, and commercialize a range of technologies, including advanced nuclear power, energy storage, carbon capture utilization, and direct air capture.

And it extends clean energy tax breaks that were at risk of phasing down, including for solar, wind, and carbon capture.

The Washington Examiner first reported the details of the package last week.

Supporters, including many environmental, labor, and business groups, say the package is a remarkable feat in a divided Congress, especially considering that President Trump does not prioritize addressing climate change. It would boost zero-carbon technologies that are only in the early stages of development but considered important tools to address climate change.

“Republicans and Democrats are working together to protect the environment through innovation,” said Republican Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who helped forge the measure on HFCs.

But some of the most liberal green groups opposed it, mainly because of its support for nuclear and carbon capture.

Liberals urged Democratic leadership not to work with Republicans in favor of waiting until next year under a Biden administration, when the playing field could be more favorable to advance more aggressive climate policies.

“[Congress] agreed upon a status quo budget that contains harmful, anti-environmental riders and an energy bill with numerous, unnecessary handouts to the fossil fuel industry,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The package reconciles some of the key provisions from Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin’s sweeping bipartisan energy bill, the American Energy Innovation Act, and House Democrats’ similar Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act.

Murkowski, the GOP chairman of the committee, said that the Energy Act “represents the first modernization of our nation’s energy policies in well over a decade.”

Murkowski and Manchin’s effort nearly fell apart before the coronavirus pandemic because of a dispute over whether to allow a vote on the provisions phasing down HFCs.

But Republicans and Democrats reached a deal on that issue in September, and the omnibus spending bill includes the compromise measure on HFCs.

Other measures in the energy package would fund the demonstration of carbon capture projects attached to coal and natural gas plants and for industrial purposes.

Another would provide cash payments for direct air capture projects that swipe carbon directly from the atmosphere. There are provisions supporting smaller advanced forms of nuclear reactors, including one authorizing a program that aims to demonstrate two new nuclear designs in the next five years.

Another item would fund the research, development, and demonstration of long-duration energy storage systems that can hold excess wind and solar power for a longer period of time to be used when the wind is still and the sun is not shining.

The energy package would also streamline the approval of wind, solar, and geothermal projects on public lands, requiring the government to set a goal of enabling at least 25 gigawatts of these renewables to be developed by 2025.