MENDOCINO Co., 11/29/21 — A traditional infrastructure bill dedicated to fixing roads and bridges has made it through Congress and across President Joe Biden’s desk, but North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman says that package won’t mean much for addressing the climate crisis if the Build Back Better Act isn’t passed alongside it.
The bill passed by the House of Representatives the past Friday, Nov. 19 includes a host of programs that would benefit Mendocino County residents, including funding that will expand access to high-speed internet, and the public more broadly through benefits like up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. The bill also makes historic investments in addressing the climate crisis, including funding to do more proactive forest management that can prevent catastrophic wildfires and funding to make water systems more resilient to drought.
Huffman said his favorite parts of the bill are the ban on new offshore drilling and the electrification of the U.S. Postal Service fleet, which is almost 200,000 vehicles. That’s $2.57 billion to buy the vehicles and $3.4 billion to install charging infrastructure over the next 10 years. “This is the largest civilian fleet in the world and when you add it together with the rest of the federal fleet and provide the funding and set the course for aggressive electrification,” Huffman said, “you can see how this begins to drive the entire market for large fleets and large delivery vehicles, especially since Amazon, FedEx and UPS have all already committed to this.”
But whether all of those parts of the bill remain intact will depend on how things play out in the Senate. Huffman said there’s cause for concern given what happened with the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which was signed into law Nov. 15. “It got hijacked in the Senate,” Huffman said. “The House passed an infrastructure bill that was really forward-looking and progressive and would’ve been quite transformative on climate and transportation policy. The Senate basically just threw it away and rewrote something that could’ve been written in the 1980s.”
There are still some parts of the infrastructure package that benefit the climate, such as funding for electric vehicle charging stations and updating the electrical grid. Overall, however, it’s not a big reducer of carbon pollution and a lot of the changes made in the Senate, especially in terms of the incentives for more sustainable transportation investments, made the bill worse for the climate, Huffman said. That doesn’t mean the state and county can’t get creative with the funding that is coming down from the federal government.
“Even though a lot of the money that comes down from this transportation infrastructure piece is going to be available for traditional stuff — roads, bridges, highways — that doesn’t mean you have to use it that way,” Huffman said. “California can absolutely deploy the big infusion of federal dollars on infrastructure in really green and climate positive ways. The problem with this law, though, is that it doesn’t require other states to do that, too.”
Because of the way the bill was rewritten in the Senate, funding that was intended to go toward zero-emission buses can now also be used for buses powered by natural gas. “And so you’re going to see states in the South and other places probably do natural gas,” Huffman said. “And that’s not good.” The government considers burning natural gas better than burning coal or petroleum, but it’s still a major emitter of the greenhouse gases, such as methane, that are driving the climate crisis.
Climate scientists, on the other hand, are in widespread agreement that electrifying everything and using renewable energy will be key in drawing down greenhouse gas emissions. Huffman said the funding for the charging stations amount to crumbs and is nowhere near the amount needed to establish a national electric vehicle charging system. “But the Build Back Better Act takes it a lot further on electric vehicle charging,” Huffman said.
An analysis from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimates the state needs 8 million zero-emission cars and 180,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses to replace vehicles on the road that produce pollution in the next decade if it wants to meet the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, according to a report released by the California Energy Commission this summer. The report also found that the state needs around 1.3 million public and shared electric vehicle charging stations to meet the fuel demands of 8 million electric vehicles in the next decade. Roughly 73,000 public and shared chargers have been installed so far. As of 2019, Mendocino County had 82, 69 short of its goal of 150 by 2025.
Democrats are hoping the bill will be on the president’s desk before the end of the year, but Huffman said, “The Senate is a very nebulous place. It moves at a glacial pace.” Huffman said he expects some changes to take place in the Senate, but a lot of the changes have already been negotiated along the way so there shouldn’t be too many surprises.
Watch a joint town hall Huffman held on the Build Back Better Act with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Oct. 15 here: Joint Town Hall with Rep. Huffman on the Build Back Better Act – YouTube