WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Tina Smith is trying to pass a landmark climate program aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, despite formidable political tensions and challenging procedural dynamics at a time when Democrats' hold on Congress is razor-thin.
"This is a moment where if we don't seize it, the results are catastrophic," Smith said in an interview.
The Minnesota Democrat's vision for a clean electricity program has become a critical aspect of efforts to help the United States try to meet urgent climate goals, in what is likely a pivotal challenge for Joe Biden's presidency. The measure would provide financial incentives to utilities and other electric suppliers that accelerate the conversion to clean electricity and levy penalties against those that don't.
"This kind of a policy is going to push people," Smith said. "If this was what they were going to do anyway, then they wouldn't be worried about how fast they're going to go. We want them to go faster than they were going to go."
The program, along with other measures that could pass in the Democrats' $3.5 trillion spending package and a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill, aims to get the U.S. electric sector to 80% clean electricity in 10 years, according to Smith's office.
"All the science is very clear that cleaning up our electricity sector is the first and largest step that we can take to address our contribution to climate change," said Gabriel Chan, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota who focuses on energy and climate policy.
Even one Democratic defection would doom Smith's program in the Senate, and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has already publicly pushed back. "The transition is happening," said Manchin, who leads the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, during a CNN appearance earlier this month. "Now they're wanting to pay companies to do what they're already doing. Makes no sense to me at all for us to take billions of dollars and pay utilities for what they're going to do as the market transitions."
The New York Times detailed Manchin's ties to the fossil fuel industry in a recent story, noting that he has sizable influence on Democrats' climate efforts. Smith said that while Manchin has raised concerns, "he also continues to be in a good conversation with us" at a crucial time for the proposal's fate.
"When Senator Manchin says that we are paying utilities to do what they were already going to do anyway, that's actually just not right," Smith said. "In fact, what we're doing is we're providing utilities with support, so that they can rapidly add clean power without raising utility rates."
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has highlighted the program and a separate tax package as major forces in the work to reduce emissions. He wrote that the larger spending plan "will represent the most significant investment in tackling the climate crisis in U.S. history," in a letter last month.
No Republicans are expected to support the bill. GOP U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said in a statement that "the Democrats' reckless tax and spending blowout will impose punishing fees and raise energy costs."
A $150 billion version of Smith's proposal called the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) is included in the House spending plan that has yet to pass either chamber.
In a letter to a pair of House lawmakers last week, Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, wrote about his "serious concerns" with the program, including that the "very narrow 10-year program implementation window is unrealistic."
A spokesperson for Minnesota Power said that "although the details will be important to ensure these goals are achievable without sacrificing reliability or affordability, we are supportive of the concept of the legislation." An Xcel Energy spokesperson said the company is engaged on how the program "could be structured to benefit customers and those companies that have taken the lead in reducing carbon emissions." Great River Energy said it was evaluating the House version of the program.
Outside Congress, some academic experts have also raised concerns about how companies could take advantage of the program in the House bill if it becomes law.
"I think that this is well intentioned and headed in the right direction," said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the energy institute at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "But when you put out these sort of financial incentives, the companies are going to go over them with a fine tooth comb and find any sort of game they can play."
The impact of climate change in Minnesota was on Smith's mind as the self-described energy nerd spoke in her Senate office last week. She pointed to "the massive drought" seen this year and forest fires that burned in northern Minnesota.
In the state, DFL Gov. Tim Walz has called for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040. But according to a January state government report, Minnesota isn't on pace to meet the less far-reaching emissions goals built into existing law.
Smith said when she talks to people in Minnesota, they believe climate change is real and caused by carbon emissions.
"They want to know what we can do to solve it. What people are worried about though is that somehow the solution to the climate crisis is going to mean that it's sort of a doom-and-gloom scenario, it's all about sacrifice," Smith said. "What I want people to understand is that in this transition, which is going to happen, if we're on the leading edge of this transition, we're going to be in such better shape."
Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559