Pandemic relief bill is the biggest thing Congress has done to battle climate change in years

Mike Wassallie climbs a wind turbine in Kwigillingok to check the blades after a blizzard. (Rachel Waldholz/Alaska Public Media)

You may know it as the COVID relief bill that will send you $600. Or perhaps as the bill President Trump finally signed after Christmas to avoid a government shutdown. What you may not know is that the massive, year-end spending bill is the most significant law to fight climate change Congress has passed in years — and maybe ever.  

The energy and climate section of the 5,000-page bill is labeled “Division Z,” and it is its own kind of huge. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been working on it for years. 

“Remember that energy bill that we had on the floor back in February, and then in early March?” she said. 

Murkowski couldn’t pass it then, but as chair of the energy committee, she negotiated for months behind the scenes, adding energy priorities along the way. It all came together in the waning days of 2020, and it hopped the last train leaving the congressional station: the COVID relief and government spending bill. 

The new law fosters innovation in technology “critical to our energy and national security, our long-term economic competitiveness, and the protection of our environment,” Murkowski said.

It’s a smorgasbord of energy programs, old and new.

Headshot of White man
ClearPath Executive Director Rich Powell. (ClearPath)

“It’s certainly the largest clean energy and climate bill in a decade,” said Rich Powell executive director of ClearPath, a group that advocates conservative solutions to climate change. While some 70 senators and House members contributed to the bill, Powell said key features came from Murkowski’s committee.

“The piece that we’re most excited about is the huge moonshot program to develop new innovative clean energy technologies,” he said.

The bill calls for billions of dollars to research and develop wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power, plus energy storage to make renewables more useful. It also aims to develop new kinds of nuclear power. The bill establishes more than 20 major demonstration projects in the next five years. Powell said it will combat climate change by acting as a launch pad for new technologies.

“We need them fast,” he said. “We need to develop them in the mid-2020s so that companies in the United States can deploy them in the 2030s and bring the costs down, and then the rest of the world can deploy them in the 2040s.”

Elgie Holstein, director of strategic planning for the Environmental Defense Fund, said it’s also important that the bill continues tax credits for existing technology, like solar and wind energy, and creates a new credit for off-shore wind.

“Those tax credits have been critical in helping to bring down the cost — and those costs are still falling for these clean energy sources,” he said.

Some of the bill’s provisions have particular relevance in Alaska. It expands the Weatherization Assistance Program, to help retrofit homes for more energy efficiency. It also encourages the development of hybrid microgrid systems for isolated communities.

But the bill doesn’t go as far as some climate groups wanted. Critics say there’s not enough support for electric vehicles or smart buildings, nor does the bill cap greenhouse gas emissions, though it does phase out an especially potent kind — hydrofluorocarbons.

Some environmental groups don’t like the bill’s programs for capturing carbon dioxide, to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. They say it props up the fossil fuel industry. 

The bill divides the fossil fuel lobby, as well. The American Petroleum Institute praises the carbon-capture programs while the American Energy Alliance calls it a “stealth Green New Deal” with giveaways for the renewable power industry.