Two major pieces of federal legislation — one passed, another awaiting action in the Senate — could mean big changes to the environment and energy landscape in Western Pennsylvania.

Key clean energy/environmental provisions
Final infrastructure package
  • Developing clean energy transmission lines: $65 billion
  • Plugging abandoned oil wells and mines: $16 billion
  • Public transit: $39 billion
  • Passenger and freight rail: $66 billion
  • Electric vehicle infrastructure: $7.5 billion
  • Clean school buses: $2.5 billion
Build Back Better Act (as passed by House)
  • Electric vehicle tax credit: $20 billion
  • Clean energy tax incentives: $163.1 billion
  • Investments in clean energy goods manufacturing: $16.6 billion
  • Investments in energy workers and communities: $6.7 billion
  • Other clean energy investments, including greenhouse gas reduction fund: $47.9 billion
  • Civilian Climate Corps: $30 billion
  • Reforestation and other conservation efforts: $26.7 billion
  • Electrification and efficiency incentives for homes: $131.2 billion
  • Research and development: $3.5 billion
  • Agriculture, including farmland conservation: $27.8 billion
  • Investments to reduce industrial emissions: $14.5 billion
  • Replacing lead pipes: $9.98 billion
  • Also: Additional investments in EV charging infrastructure, public transit/rail, power lines and other infrastructure

The bipartisan infrastructure package President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15 promises to inject over $1.2 trillion in funding to address the country’s aging infrastructure. Both that package and the $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill Democrats hope to pass on its heels, the Build Back Better Act, include major provisions to address climate change and promote clean energy.

With two key Democratic holdouts in the Senate, it’s unclear what pieces of the Build Back Better Act will make the final cut, or if the legislation will eventually pass. Though lawmakers have already cut out other major Democratic priorities, the majority of its climate funding remain intact — $550 billion out of the original $600 billion proposed. 

The Build Back Better Act, or something of the same scale, would be the first legislation to address the United States’ carbon emissions on a grand scale. Experts say that if it passes, it could cut 2 billion tons of emissions per year, the amount needed to meet the target set under the Paris Agreement. It would also be the largest investment in climate policy in the country’s history — six times larger than anything that came before.

Local experts and leaders say it’s a once-in-a-generation investment to confront the climate crisis. In Western Pennsylvania, they say, it also could reshape the region’s economy and energy landscape — with the potential to change the jobs residents work, the way they travel and the power that runs their homes and businesses. 

Fueling a transition to clean energy

The climate policies in the two pieces of legislation pile on one another in several areas, with the Build Back Better Act providing another injection of funding for initiatives included in the infrastructure package. Examples include electric vehicles, public transit and clean energy technology research.   

In terms of addressing climate change, the Build Back Better Act is much greater in scope and more far-reaching. 

Several experts told PublicSource the infrastructure package on its own will provide some of the funding necessary to build out a power grid capable of supporting widespread clean energy. But the $163 billion in clean energy tax credits included in the reconciliation bill, alongside other emissions-cutting incentives, would create the financial momentum for such a transition to take place.

“There’s a lot that can already be done with the infrastructure bill,” said Valerie Karplus, an associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.  “But I also think [Build Back Better] is a landmark piece of legislation that could really get us to the point where we could say we’re on a path to a climate-secure future.”

Republican opponents of the legislation have argued that it will kill jobs, increase inflation and increase the federal deficit. While Democrats scored a victory by passing the infrastructure package in November, they’ve so far been unable to unite behind the broader social spending bill. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) specifically voiced opposition to important pieces of the president’s climate change agenda over concerns about its impact on the energy industry. 

“…[Build Back Better] is a landmark piece of legislation that could really get us to the point where we could say we’re on a path to a climate-secure future.”

Valerie Karplus, Carnegie Mellon University

Manchin successfully lobbied to kill the Clean Energy Payment Plan initially included in the Build Back Better Act, which would have rewarded utilities that began embracing renewables and punished those that didn’t. 

If broadly passed, what would Biden’s climate agenda look like in practice?

In the long term, it could mean your child’s electric school bus will one day replenish its batteries at charging ports funded by federal grants. It could mean new power lines will carry electricity to your neighborhood from tax-incentivized renewable energy projects. It could mean government authorities cleaning up some of the over 8,800 documented orphaned oil or gas wells across Western Pennsylvania, or new manufacturing jobs in your neighborhood centered around clean energy. 

It could also mean workers in certain fossil-fuel reliant industries lose jobs, or that newly incentivized clean energy projects or infrastructure will face pushback from residents who don’t want them in their backyard. 

How quickly the impacts of the legislation are felt would depend on the actions of state and local leaders, who will have to seek out newly available funds and put them to use, said Erin Mayfield, a professor at Dartmouth College’s School of Engineering who has studied the impact of energy transitions in the Appalachian region. 

Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh, said Western Pennsylvania is poised to take advantage of the funding.

The legislation “really helps to facilitate a large portion of the things that we have advocated for and are advancing — whether that is renewable powers or energy-efficient buildings or electric vehicle transitions,” Ervin said. 

In that sense, Ervin said he believes the funds could speed up a trend toward decarbonization that Pittsburgh has already embarked on. There will be “growing pains,” he said, as the region experiments and learns from each of its projects, whether that be testing new sources of clean energy or laying out the infrastructure to support them.

One of those growing pains might be building out the updated power grid needed to support wide-scale clean energy, especially because the communities that he hopes will one day rely on clean energy aren’t going to be adjacent to the places that can produce it. That means power will in some cases have to travel over longer distances. 

The two pieces of legislation together provide close to $70 billion to spur the modernization and development of new transmission lines. But Kevin Moody, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association [PIOGA], said a renewable-friendly grid could take decades to develop, even with incentives, and will face opposition from residents who may not want power lines or energy projects going up in their communities.

The legislation “really helps to facilitate a large portion of the things that we have advocated for and are advancing — whether that is renewable powers or energy-efficient buildings or electric vehicle transitions.”

Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh

In the near term, Mayfield said a transition to electric vehicles and decarbonized power sources will mean cleaner air and better health outcomes. Other elements of the package would fund reforestation and conservation efforts.

The provisions for capping orphaned oil and gas wells are also particularly relevant to the region, where most of Pennsylvania’s known wells are concentrated. Orphaned wells — which may number as high as 200,000 in the state, according to estimates from the Environmental Defense Fund — can emit greenhouse gases and can also leak pollutants into nearby water and soil. 

Together, Ervin said the two pieces of legislation represent an opportunity for Pittsburgh “to move away from an energy system that is polluting and creating detrimental health impacts” and “one that is last century’s technology.”

Building a clean energy economy

The legislation could also spark a sizable shift in the region’s economy. 

Experts said they were optimistic workers in Western Pennsylvania could soon manufacture the technology needed to build out a growing clean energy economy — and that researchers in the region could specialize in moving that technology forward.

There are relatively few U.S. companies manufacturing clean energy technology to meet the rising demand, said Anna Siefken, executive director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at CMU. With the infrastructure package and Build Back Better Act providing billions in federal grants and tax incentives for clean energy projects, demand for that technology is set to increase. 

Regional energy and climate leaders, like Siefken, see Western Pennsylvania filling that role.

So does Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. 

“We believe now with Build Back Better that there will be a vehicle in Washington that will help West Virginia, help Ohio, help Western Pennsylvania and help Northern Kentucky to be competitive in a world where we would otherwise be left behind,” Peduto said on a panel after the infrastructure bill passed and just after returning from the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow. “We will actually be able to lead and create jobs and not lose jobs, and we have an economic development strategy to help get us there.”

At the same time, authorities have acknowledged the potential for economic harm to communities financially reliant on fossil fuels. The Marshall Plan for Middle America, a policy roadmap the City of Pittsburgh contributed to that outlines a transition to a sustainable economy based on clean energy, acknowledges that it is “not realistic” to expect a transition to clean energy will in all cases create “new economic bases that support a region’s previous level of population and community income.”

The Build Back Better Act contains a $7 billion provision that would support those workers and their communities through a transition to clean energy, including funds dedicated to training and job search programs for displaced workers.

The region will need to be mindful of “the communities that are going to be most affected, and have been most left out in prior transitions in the region,” Karplus said. Among them, she said, are rural communities. 

“These bills are going to give regions an opportunity to really reinvent themselves around a clean energy future,” she said.

Moody, however, doesn’t believe the legislation will strangle the oil and gas industry in the region or the towns that have traditionally depended on them. Without a grid in place to support widespread renewable energy, he said he believes natural gas will be a core component of the region’s economy for at least the next several decades — and that natural gas will help power any electric vehicle infrastructure or manufacturing jobs the legislation brings to the area.

Pennsylvania has lagged behind neighboring states in pushing for renewable energy adoption, said Matt Mahoney, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Solar Center. Though the injection in funds provided by the legislation would help “level the playing field,” Pennsylvania will have more catching up to do compared to other states when it comes to attracting investment in clean energy-related ventures. 

Siefken said the Pittsburgh area could be in a good position to capitalize in new investments for research and demonstrations of clean energy technology. The area already has abundant research infrastructure and talent in place to make use of it, she said.

With that funding, the region could do more than supply the clean energy transition — it could brand itself as a hub for innovation. 

It’s a chance to put the “lens of the world” on Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, she said.

Chris Hippensteel is a freelance writer based in Syracuse and a former PublicSource intern. He can be reached at chrishipp15@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Amelia Winger.

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