A Little Bit Louder Now

Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Embraces Breakthrough’s Quiet Climate Policy Priorities

Another advance in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, another reminder of the prolific and enduring value of quiet climate policy.

In 2019, Breakthrough’s Executive Director Ted Nordhaus defined quiet climate policy as “incremental steps that might prove capable of breaking the deadlock that has paralyzed progress on mitigating climate change.” Of course, between then and now, a global pandemic erupted, fundamentally shifting the political economy of federal infrastructure investment.

As we wrote in our January 2021 report Saying the Quiet Part Loud, “What makes this moment in American politics unique is the eagerness of the federal government to commit potentially unprecedented resources towards science, RD&D, and infrastructure.” That report was the sum of nearly a dozen policy briefs we wrote after the onset of the pandemic last spring in which we recommended more than $250 billion in federal investments in spending towards US power sector decarbonization and innovation, transportation electrification, US shipping port and airport resilience, climate-smart agricultural technologies and practices, and more.

Our colleague Josh Freed, Senior Vice President for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program, broke down the numbers in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (BID). If enacted, the legislation would make material progress towards many of the investment priorities that we at Breakthrough and our partners have spent the last year championing.

  • $27.65 billion for grid infrastructure, resiliency, and reliability. (We recommended $80 billion towards the full development of a continental supergrid.)
  • $7.5 billion for electric vehicles and vehicle charging infrastructure. (We recommended $5 billion for EV charging stations.)
  • $3.5 billion for four direct air capture (DAC) industrial hubs. (We recommended $8.1-10.5 billion in carbon capture, transportation, and storage.)
  • $4.7 billion for orphaned gas wells. (We recommended major federal investments in capping and otherwise remediating the environmental and public health impacts of the over 3 million orphaned gas wells in the country.)
  • $40 billion to expand broadband access and subsidize access for lower-income households (We endorsed the USDA’s estimate of $130-150 billion in needed broadband expansion over five to seven years.)
  • $8.3 billion in funding for innovation programs included in the Energy Act of 2020 (which also included billions in new federal appropriations) and $500 million in clean energy demonstration projects. (We recommended a total of $68 billion in federal investments in energy innovation across nuclear energy, carbon removal, geothermal, energy storages, and more.)

The BID would also make large investments in industrial hydrogen capacity, tax credits for clean manufacturing, public transit, as well as a credit auction program to support America’s nuclear power plants.

While truly unlimited federal spending on clean energy innovation and infrastructure would be neither possible nor appropriate, in many cases the proposed federal investments could be larger. But a bipartisan infrastructure bill of this magnitude would itself have been considered implausible before 2020.

Congressional Democrats and the White House are planning to include more sweeping reforms as part of a larger reconciliation package later, proposing a dramatic expansion of funding for clean energy infrastructure, subsidies, and a clean electricity standard (CES) that would be more in-line with the Biden Administration’s stated goal of reducing US emissions 50% by 2030.

Providing more resources for decarbonization is an admirable goal; we would just emphasize that good low-carbon technologies – including solar photovoltaics, nuclear reactors, combined cycle turbines, lithium-ion batteries, wind turbines, alternative proteins, gas with carbon capture and storage, and productivity-enhancing agricultural technologies – emerge from large-scale investments in innovation, development, deployment, and infrastructure. Investments like these are the wheat, not the chaff, of climate action. Climate advocates of all stripes should support their passage and continue to advance innovation and investment-oriented agendas in the years and decades to come.