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Pudding Proof

The Bitter Triumph of the Inflation Reduction Act

Passing any climate policy through this Senate is a massive achievement. But environmentalists are right to be wary of the drilling concessions Democrats had to give away to get there.

Chuck Schumer holds a paper above his head, smiling.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives to a news conference about the Inflation Reduction Act outside the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2022.

Amid all the triumphant tweets and press releases about the Inflation Reduction Act and its climate provisions Monday morning were a few reflections on just how much has changed in climate world: In just a few years, the conversation about climate policy has shifted from narrow talk of carbon pricing to a focus on federal investment. The fact that anything called climate policy managed to get through a razor-thin 50-50 majority in the U.S. Senate is astonishing. And it’s largely climate and environmental justice groups that moved the needle: from indigenous-led resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure that put issues of extraction on sovereignty on the table, to organizers in Flint helping place a focus on environmental racism, and the Sunrise Movement—influenced by all of the above—that sat in for the Green New Deal and didn’t shut up about it.

It’s an uncomfortable paradox. Insofar as there is something that can be called a climate movement, the IRA is a product of its success. It’s also a massive betrayal.

The IRA and the climate policy it contains wouldn’t have passed the Senate on Sunday without the enormous amount of work put in by the people who feel most ambivalent about the devil’s bargain struck to get it. The environmentalists and other organizers who made this bill possible are painfully aware of the awful policies it contains, including a big new giveaway of public lands over to drilling, and a prospective overhaul of the laws that govern where and how fossil fuel infrastructure gets built.

Without these organizers, the well-heeled set of politicians and pundits who remain thrilled about this bill might still be debating the finer points of hypothetical carbon taxes. And so, despite their eagerness to celebrate, establishment Democrats might be wise to listen a little more closely to those with mixed feelings—especially given how much remains to be seen about how the IRA will be implemented in the coming years.

Skeptics’ instincts have been right before. In 2015—just after the Paris Agreement was brokered—Democratic leaders and renewables lobbyists got on board with another trade-off between clean and fossil energy. In exchange for a five-year extension of tax credits for wind and solar, that year’s must-pass spending bill repealed a longstanding ban on crude oil exports. The ban reversal was also, as Bill McKibben wrote at the time, framed as a bargaining chip for the Paris Agreement itself. Senior administration officials reportedly told activists they would “have to swallow” the change. “This is the biggest deal for addressing climate change that we are going to see,” Senator Martin Heinrich said of the deal, pushed in the Senate by oil state politicians, Lisa Murkowski and Heidi Heitkamp. In a Dear Colleagues letter, Nancy Pelosi wrote that, “while lifting the oil export ban remains atrocious policy, the wind and solar tax credits in the Omnibus will eliminate around ten times more carbon pollution than the exports of oil will add,” declining to provide citations. A fossil fuel funded academic center—staffed by former Obama administration officials—joined the push, as well.

Environmental and climate justice groups railed against the deal, noting that it could expand U.S. oil production by as much as 3.3 billion barrels a day. Meanwhile, all signs pointed to the need for a rapid transition off fossil fuels.

While the Obama administration narrative was the one that prevailed in the media, environmental groups were right to worry: Crude oil exports surged by 750 percent over the next four years, providing a critical bailout to U.S. drillers. The U.S. became a net oil exporter of fossil fuels for the first time in decades. Today, fossil fuel companies continue to rake in record profits while investing paltry sums in renewables.

The IRA so far has enjoyed a similarly soft media landing. As details about the deal to secure the IRA emerged, comforting numbers did too, showing that any new leasing provisions—the fossil fuel-friendly elements in the text of the IRA—would be handily outpaced by the emissions reductions the bill’s clean energy provisions will furnish. The upshot was clear: the trade-off, even for an overhaul of permitting rules to come, is worth it. Let’s hope those analyses are correct. They might also be wrong, as modeling is wont to be from time to time. Projections in those models on how much carbon can be captured from new fossil fuel production in the coming years is optimistic, to put it mildly.

Multiple things can be true at the same time. The Inflation Reduction Act—the first piece of climate policy to pass the Senate ever—is a historic achievement and vitally important given that Democrats may not get to govern again for a decade. It also consigns more people to living next to more fossil fuel infrastructure for longer; in many cases, that means consigning more people—predominantly poor people, Black people, and brown people—to disease and death. We don’t fully know what the bill will do. The IRA’s passage doesn’t close the book on U.S. climate policy so much as open it. As ever, the best guides to navigating what comes next will likely be the people who won it in the first place, and who’ll have to live the closest to its consequences.