Issues of the Environment: The environmental pros and cons of the Federal Inflation Reduction Act for Washtenaw County and the region
- It had been 41 years since the US Congress held its first hearings about “global warming,” and 25 years since the Kyoto Protocolwas approved, committing the nations of the world to address the climate crisis. For decades, the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on US politics kept action at bay.
- In early August, most had written off the Biden administration's plans for a Democrat-led climate bill. However, in a surprising turn of events, Senate leader Chuck Schumerstruck a seemingly out-of-reach deal with SenatorJoe Manchin to pass the first significant climate bill in US history. TheInflation Reduction Act was signed into law on August 16, 2022, committing $369 billion toward climate emission reduction efforts.
- The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor says the IRA is both monumentally good and bad, with the potential for both positive and negative effects in southeast Michigan.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to look at federal efforts to address climate change and the potential impacts here in Washtenaw County and Southeast Michigan. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. The Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law on August 16th of this year, committing $369 billion toward climate emission reduction efforts. Early analysis shows the investment will provide some much-needed benefit. It also is a measure that certainly has its shortcomings. We're going to wade into that today with Mike Garfield. Mike is the director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. And, Mike, always good to have you on the air.
Mike Garfield: It's great to be here with you, David. Thanks for having me.
David Fair: Well, for a while now, Mike, the Biden climate agenda seemed dead in the water. So, were you surprised when the administration finally got Senator Joe Manchin on board even with a watered-down version of the original proposal?
Mike Garfield:I think most of us were surprised at the final outcome, although there may have been some inklings this could come about. But, you know, I think you really have to put this all in context. It's been more than 40 years since Congress has been aware that climate change is an issue that deserves urgent attention. And it's only this summer that we finally passed the first major climate law in United States history. It's a monumental event.
David Fair: So, I want to start by focusing on the positives. It is believed the Inflation Reduction Act will go a long way towards helping the U.S. achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 50% by the year 2030. What are the primary elements of the act that bring so many to that conclusion?
Mike Garfield: There are a number of provisions in the law. What's been most widely reported are a series of a wide range of tax incentives and tax credits, upfront rebates, other financial incentives that encourage the transition to electrification throughout the economy. There are tax incentives and upfront discounts for electric vehicles, for electric heat pumps, to replace heating and cooling systems and houses and businesses, and for other household and business items, all designed to speed the conversion away from natural gas, from heating oil, from gasoline in our cars and diesel and trucks. And there are a number of other benefits. In addition to the tax incentives, there is money that hasn't been as widely reported that is earmarked for what the act calls disadvantaged communities. And the definition of exactly where that money could go is still getting tweaked. But it is designed to address historic disinvestment in the absence of clean energy provisions in low-income communities, for low-income households, in Black and Brown communities, and the communities that have been most impacted by climate change in the energy economy. So, without going into all of the details, those are the major provisions in the new law.
David Fair: And it was designed with environmental justice in mind and creating greater equity within the legislation. They benefit of that. They say it will be saving 4000 lives a year, and there will be 9 million jobs created as a result. Now, a lot of legislative proposals put forth best-case scenarios. And as they get passed, we go through the process, and they don't always fully pan out. Based on the research you've been able to do, are those kinds of numbers achievable?
Mike Garfield: I think they're achievable. There are a lot of factors that are going to bear on how it gets rolled out. You know, I think it bears....this whole proposition bears getting put into some context. You know, I mentioned at the outset that it took 40 years for a climate law to get passed at the federal level. And there are a couple of reasons, I think, why it took so long. You know, one is that what we're talking about here, the project of effecting a clean energy transition and seriously addressing climate change is absolutely unprecedented in scale. We're talking about transforming every aspect of the economy. And the other piece of this is that there's been unprecedented resistance over the decades from the incumbent industries, from the oil industry, the gas industry, coal, to the auto industry, chemical industry, building and manufacturing sectors. But, in the last decade, there's been a new uprising--a resistance, if you will--from climate activists of all ages, backgrounds, races. It's often been led by young people to turn the tide. And it's been that climate movement and that climate justice movement that made climate a priority for the Democratic Party. And, really, it got this law passed, even if by only the narrowest of margins. And I think is, you know, to the point you're raising about how whether the benefits are really going to accrue to who needs it and at the scale that we hope, it's going to take all of us activists and advocates still making sure that it gets implemented well.
David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Mike Garfield continues. Mike is director of the Ecology Center, and we're looking at the Inflation Reduction Act and its potential in addressing the climate crisis. You touched on it, Mike. There are some concerning parts of the act for environmentalists and climate activists. There were concessions made to the fossil fuel industry that certainly threatened to slow down the impacts, if not halt them altogether.
Mike Garfield: There are some deeply problematic aspects of the law. You know, it passed in the Senate by the tie breaking vote of the Vice President. And to get the 50th vote in the Senate to get Senator Joe Manchin vote, the backers of the bill had the support provisions that that are contained in the bill that gives some concessions to the fossil fuel industry. And they also signed off on a side deal which hasn't yet been acted on to quote-unquote, reform permitting for fossil fuel projects or for energy projects across the country. They refer to that as permitting reform. I refer to it as permitting rollback. And to describe what's involved here in just a little bit of detail, the law that passed prevents the Department of the Interior from issuing leases on federal land for wind and solar power projects, for renewable energy projects, for transmission expansion projects to bring wind energy to cities where it's needed, and other renewable energy projects, unless the department offers a certain amount of land for lease for oil and gas development. So, they talked about this as a compromise, as a 50-50 outcome for renewables in fossil fuels. But frankly, it sets an awful precedent. And, in my opinion, it's nowhere close to a 50-50 compromise. Well, we're at a point in the evolution of the climate crisis where fossil fuels simply must be left in the ground. We've expended too much of our carbon budget and any new development is going to have devastating effects. It's a damaging proposition that was put into the law itself, and that's not even talking about the side deal--the permitting rollback proposal that Majority Leader Schumer agreed to with Senator Manchin.
David Fair: Well, we talk a lot in a variety of issues about state and local control of things. And, of course, as you mentioned, this is the first federal legislation passed in 40 years of significance. As we look at the role that state and local governments are going to play in keeping us from going over the tipping point in the climate crisis, what kind of financial support tools are included to allow for further development of local and state governmental measures?
Mike Garfield: That's a great question. And the way our federal programs are structured, a lot of the funding that comes through, many of the federal programs that are described in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, many of the programs get administered at the state level. So, if the Whitmer administration is still in power next year, when some of this money begins to flow to the states, the administration will have a lot of influence over some of the details of over how the money gets distributed. I mentioned that some of the clean energy money is devoted to specific programing throughout the country. And to give you an example of that, there are $3 billion in environmental justice block grants that are included in the plan. There is almost $10 billion in direct assistance to low-income rural electric cooperatives. There's $5 billion in climate pollution reduction.
David Fair: And we can name any number of areas throughout the state of Michigan, including here in southeast Michigan, where that would apply.
Mike Garfield: That's right. And when the Department of Energy has looked at where they would direct money for some of what they were calling the Justice 40 investments for infrastructure and energy expenditures, money to go to, quote unquote, disadvantaged communities and other communities that have been hit hard by climate impacts and historic economic disinvestment. They identified parts of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, some other communities and census tracts throughout southeast Michigan. So, some of that money and maybe a larger proportion than average of the money that comes through the various programs identified in the act could be coming to parts of Washtenaw County and other places are really needed in Southeast Michigan.
David Fair: As our time starts to wind down and we have to bring our conversation to a conclusion, we can both agree that we've just scratched the surface, and we could talk hours on each component of this. But, for today, we know that the IRA is a start. There are other measures in the works--locally, statewide, nationally, even internationally. A lot of it all uncoordinated at this point. In your estimation, what has to happen next?
Mike Garfield: Well, the most immediate thing on the table is that the permitting rollback provisions--the Manchin-Schumer side deal--is going to be debated in the coming weeks as probably as part of a budget resolution. And that should be defeated. That would create even more giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that just have to be blocked. On the clean energy side of things, it's critical that the money flow to where it's most needed. And communities in Michigan that are planning for climate adaptation to address the worst impacts of the climate crisis and to take action to reduce their energy usage, they need to do what they can to bring resources together and coordinate best as possible. I believe that's the intention of the administration right now in Lansing. I know, right here in Washtenaw County, we've got the City of Ypsilanti, the City of Ann Arbor with climate action plans. Washtenaw County is developing theirs. So, they'll be trying to leverage this money to move our community to carbon neutrality. City of Ann Arbor has a millage proposal on the November ballot where it could bootstrap some of those projects much, much further along towards carbon neutrality. If we can bring all of those efforts to bear together, we'll be moving quite a quite a good ways down the road.
David Fair: Well, Mike, thank you for making time for us today and sharing your perspective. Obviously, there's going to be quite a bit of opportunity for us to continue touching upon these topics together.
Mike Garfield: Thanks so much for covering this issue, David.
David Fair: That is Mike Garfield. Mike is the director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. He's been our guest on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. If you would like more information on today's topic and our conversation, all you have to do is visit our web site at WEMU dot org. This weekly segment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring you Issues of the Environment every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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