Climate takes center stage in massive federal infrastructure plan

The J.M. Stuart Station is seen next to the Ohio River on September 10, 2019 near Manchester, Ohio. The power plant closed in 2018 and had been in operation for 48 years. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON  — U.S. House Democrats this week unveiled plans to spend $760 billion over five years on infrastructure upgrades throughout the country. 

A central theme throughout their plan: combating climate change. 

The framework unveiled by Democrats on Wednesday prioritizes slashing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector while also boosting resiliency in the face of a changing climate. 

Democrats hope to plow more than $34 billion into clean energy investments, including efforts to upgrade the electric grid to accommodate more renewable energy and grants for local governments to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects. 

The plan also seeks to invest $1.5 billion in electric vehicle infrastructure “to assist the transition to zero emissions vehicles.”

The sweeping package also aims to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels around the country, while investing in mass transit, passenger rail, airports and water infrastructure projects. It would put $1 billion toward helping communities address contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals. 

Securing a bipartisan deal on infrastructure could present one of the most significant opportunities this year to legislate on climate change, as most other initiatives have ground to a halt amid the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and the upcoming 2020 elections. 

Environmental groups hailed the release of the Democrats’ infrastructure framework. 

“This plan would help us address climate change by making long-overdue investments in transportation, safe drinking water, and clean energy including preparing for more frequent extreme weather events,” said Stephanie Gidigbi, director of policy and partnerships in the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Democrats and Republicans alike are eager to compromise on the issue, particularly some freshman lawmakers anxious to declare a tangible legislative success ahead of their 2020 reelection bids. 

But past infrastructure negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House have collapsed. Last May, Trump walked out of an infrastructure meeting with congressional Democrats, insisting they couldn’t work together during tense investigations against him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) labeled the blowup a temper tantrum at the time. 

Playing up the climate change aspects of their legislation might make it tougher for House Democrats looking to get Republican support. At least a few House Republicans this week suggested that Democrats’ focus on climate change would indeed make bipartisan compromise difficult. 

“We have climate change, we all recognize climate change,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said Wednesday when asked about the climate focus in the infrastructure proposal. 

“Republicans want to do something about climate change, and I think we’re going to come out with a really, really good plan on what to do about climate change. And we should take climate change into consideration in everything that we’re doing, but to make it the total focus is not what we want to do on infrastructure.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said, “Why don’t we just focus on infrastructure in the infrastructure bill?” when asked about the climate provisions. 

“Of course” the climate language will make negotiations more difficult, said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), who’s on Trump’s impeachment defense team. Lesko added that she’s not very optimistic about passing major legislation, given the heightened partisan tensions on Capitol Hill. 

“The rhetoric that is going on right now in this whole impeachment thing is just taking over everything,” she said. 

But Democrats say they’re optimistic about the effort’s chances this time around. 

“These are not message bills,” Pelosi insisted Wednesday at the Democrats’ press conference. “We are hoping that we will have the support of the Republicans and the president of the United States.”