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Analysis: How Biden’s zero-carbon revolution would broaden the energy map


“There is a different story here than people are imagining,” says Lindsey Walter, deputy director of climate policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group that is among the sponsors of the Decarb America project. “In today’s world, the states that have oil, gas and coal resources are the ones that have the most opportunity to play a role in energy production. But by 2050 every single state is playing a role in producing energy using the natural resources available in that state. That’s why you are seeing the opportunity for more states to benefit in this net zero carbon economy.”

The spread of clean energy jobs to more states, in turn, would enhance the industry’s political leverage to drive more policies through Congress in the years ahead to support the massive transition to a zero-carbon economy. The catch is that to set this process in motion, Biden and his allies in the clean energy industries must first find a way past the resistance of legislators from the heavy fossil-fuel-producing states, almost all of them Republicans, who have shut down discussion of virtually any legislation that would diminish the nation’s reliance on oil, coal and natural gas.

As on so many other issues, Biden’s success at accelerating a clean energy transition could come down to how far he can nudge conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, the state that produces more coal than any other except Wyoming.
The “clean electricity standard” idea included in Biden’s plan has advanced in recent years across primarily Democratic-leaning states and was also embodied in 2019 legislation introduced by Democrats Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota and then-Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico (he has since been elected to the Senate). Thirteen states have set a goal of obtaining all of their electricity from zero-carbon sources by at least 2050, with another four establishing that milestone as a nonbinding goal, according to a recent tabulation by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But none of the states that have established those goals are among today’s major producers of fossil fuels. That points to the principal obstacle in Congress for the clean electricity standard, or any other measure that seeks to reduce carbon emissions and diminish the nation’s reliance on the fossil fuels that generate them: what I’ve called the “brown blockade” of GOP legislators from the states most heavily invested in the existing fossil fuel economy. In the 21 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic activity, Republicans hold 37 of the 42 Senate seats, almost enough to sustain a filibuster on their own. (Twenty of those 21 states also voted for Donald Trump last November.)

Fossil fuel states few but mighty

Smith, like many environmental groups and even energy industry analysts, argues that rather than resisting the clean energy transition, those states would benefit from embracing the opportunities it can create. “History is littered with stories of countries and states and communities that failed to see where we are going and got stuck in where we were,” Smith told me. “There’s a fundamental reality about a clean energy future, which is that it’s going to happen, and the United States, and states individually, can either lead or they can follow.”

But no Republicans co-sponsored her stand-alone clean electricity bill, and Republicans in Congress also appear to be solidifying in opposition to the broader Biden infrastructure plan that incorporates the idea.
Fact check: Biden administration officials falsely describe infrastructure jobs estimate
The paradox facing those promoting a low-carbon future is that they may need something like a clean electricity standard to create the political coalition to pass one through Congress. By spreading the benefit of energy production across more states, a clean electricity standard would increase the clout of zero-carbon sources relative to fossil fuels in Congress. But the clean energy industry, while rapidly growing, still…



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