Policy experts say infrastructure deal could transform clean energy efforts, address inequity

By: - August 2, 2021 6:15 am
Six smokestacks in a row release smoke into a gray sky.

Fifteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from large energy and industrial facilities, which are then emitted in communities where most people are either low-income or nonwhite. (Getty Images)

A test vote on Wednesday advanced national legislation on a $550 billion infrastructure deal and cleared the way for debate to begin in the U.S. Senate.

The plan contains significant measures for clean energy infrastructure – the subject of a policy symposium held at Dartmouth’s Irving Institute on Wednesday. During the discussion, policy experts raised concerns over racial and economic inequity that have accompanied previous infrastructure projects and discussed the local engagement needed to change that trajectory in a future buildout. They say verifying that future funds are spent appropriately will be another challenge.  

The panel discussed the infrastructure deal in conjunction with the $3.5 trillion Democratic package to expand what has been termed “human” infrastructure. That includes Medicare, universal pre-kindergarten, and national paid family leave, in addition to funding a range of climate and environmental initiatives, such as a new federal clean energy standard and incentives for electric vehicles and energy efficiency.

“This second package, the three-and-a-half-trillion-dollar package, would move through the so-called budget reconciliation process that sidesteps the usual Senate requirement of at least 60 votes to advance legislation,” said Dan Reicher, a partner at the Climate Adaptive Infrastructure Fund and senior scholar at Stanford Woods Institute.

“This would allow Senate Democrats to pass the infrastructure budget reconciliation bill without Republican support,” Reicher said.

Proponents of the legislation hope that forward momentum on the infrastructure bill will help advance the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package, containing investments for climate and environmental justice.

Expanding the traditional definition of infrastructure to include so-called human infrastructure has been a central policy debate nationally and locally.

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The infrastructure packages are facing some pushback in New Hampshire by groups such as Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy organization. The group held a rally on Saturday to urge New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to oppose the infrastructure bills.

“Washington is trying to take a backwards approach by continuing an unsustainable spending spree leaving us with trillions more in debt, tax hikes on small businesses and workers, while doing nothing to address needed regulatory fixes that actually improve roads and bridges,” said Americans for Prosperity state director Greg Moore in a written statement released Thursday.

Funding for the $550 billion deal would mostly come from money that was allocated for COVID relief in the stimulus bill but hasn’t been spent, with funds also coming from unemployment insurance aid programs, as well as more stringent enforcement of taxes on cryptocurrency and reinstating a tax on chemical manufacturers.

“We are proud to announce we have reached a bipartisan agreement on our proposal to make the strongest investment in America’s critical infrastructure in a generation,” the bipartisan infrastructure group wrote in a joint statement, signed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan. 

The group said the plan would create good-paying jobs without raising taxes.

“Reaching this agreement was no easy task – but our constituents expect us to put in the hard work and show that two parties can still work together to address the needs of the American people,” said the statement, released late Wednesday.

And Congressman Chris Pappas called the Senate vote a “critical breakthrough,” in a written statement released Thursday. He said the House should quickly take up the bill once it passes the Senate and called on lawmakers to “get an infrastructure bill done without delay.”

“Infrastructure cannot and should not wait,” he said. 

Attendees of the Irving Institute symposium argued that clean energy infrastructure is human infrastructure.

“The climate is going to sustain itself,” said Sam Ricketts, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress. “This is fundamentally a human problem caused by humans, impacting humans, and that humans now need to respond and react to.”

He pointed to the second heat dome that’s been forecast for parts of the country, and the fact that extreme heat has already killed hundreds on the West Coast this summer.

“I think more people are coming to understand these impacts as demanding human response in the form of lawmaking, in the form of legislating,” Ricketts said.

While previous attempts to mitigate climate change through policy have hinged on making pollution more expensive, Ricketts said current legislation takes a different, more sweeping approach – infrastructure is an investment in local communities, and with it can come local jobs and economic development.

Who stands to benefit from this investment was a major focus of the symposium, where speakers discussed righting past inequities.

Recent research has shown that racist banking practices, such as redlining, have contributed to how Black and lower-income Americans experience climate change, according to Peggy Shepard, co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Shepard is also part of Justice 40, an initiative of the Biden administration to target 40 percent of benefits from energy investments toward frontline communities.

Redlined communities, where discriminatory lending practices led to racially segregated neighborhoods, are the same ones now experiencing extreme heat, and dying from it, Shepard said.

“There are inequities, both in terms of who’s deriving the benefits of this infrastructure, like jobs, and those that bear the costs from that infrastructure, like local and regional air pollution and legacy hazardous waste and the effects on groundwater,” said Erin Mayfield, an environmental systems engineer and public policy researcher who has worked on modeling pathways to net-zero carbon emissions through a study conducted at Princeton.

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Fifteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from large energy and industrial facilities, which are then emitted in communities where most people are either low-income or nonwhite, Mayfield said.

Longtime critics of the Seabrook nuclear power plant have pointed to how those dynamics have historically played out in New Hampshire. For example, the wealthier town of Rye successfully prevented an oil refinery from being sited in town in the 1970s, while opposition to a nuclear plant in the working-class town of Seabrook failed to prevent construction of the nuclear plant. Now beta and gamma radiation from the plant can at times spike up to three times what is considered normal, according to Natalie Treat, executive director of C-10, a nonprofit watchdog organization. Exposure to radiation at high levels can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Mayfield said a new buildout could have a big impact.

“This also suggests that there are unprecedented opportunities to upend a lot of the existing and persistent public health and labor inequities through public and private investment in infrastructure, and also thoughtful siting and planning of new infrastructure,” she said.

Achieving a commonly stated goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 would entail a tenfold increase in solar and wind capacity, Mayfield said, which means building about one-and-a-half terawatts of additional capacity. Solar and wind manufacturing could be preferentially sited to compensate for some of the job losses that result from moving away from coal and other fossil fuels.

But a breakdown in communication between government agencies and those in the energy industry and target communities could be a barrier in achieving that vision.

“Email, zoom, webinars are our lifeline to prosperity or sanity during COVID,” said Jeanette Pablo, a resident senior fellow at the Clean Air Task Force. Digital notices are often provided on websites, but “vulnerable communities often can’t access these things,” she said.

“Either there’s no high-speed internet, it isn’t affordable, or they don’t have smart devices,” Pablo said. And that problem holds true for both urban and rural communities. Pablo pointed to a new law in New York that requires internet service providers to offer low-income customers service for $15 a month, a policy that has already reached 7 million people in New York City.

In New Hampshire, 10 percent of households don’t have an internet subscription and 5 percent live in an area where broadband isn’t available. The infrastructure bill includes $65 billion in broadband grants.

The infrastructure bill also includes $15 billion to build a national network of electric vehicle chargers and pay for electric buses. New Hampshire’s buildout of charging stations has been slow. Money from the Volkswagen emissions settlement that was earmarked for this purpose has not been spent.

Shepard said it is crucial to ensure that funds are spent as intended. She suggested that each city establish an equity task force to focus on how the money is getting delivered and whether it is reaching the communities it should. 

“We also know that states and localities somehow don’t always send that money where it was intended to go. So how do we monitor and ensure that happens? . . . How do the people who need it actually get it?” she asked.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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