Rep. Mike Levin on the Consequential Impacts of Congress’ Budget & Infrastructure Votes This Month

Mike Levin

As Democrats in Congress work in the next two weeks to fashion and negotiate a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, VX News asked Representative Mike Levin (CA-49) to elaborate on the significance of the pending federal spending frameworks.  Rep. Levin, who sits on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis as well as the House Natural Resources Committee, also shares his hopes - ahead of November’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland - that Congress will deliver the infrastructure, policy, and funding to both advance and achieve the nation’s Paris Climate Accord goals.

Mike, with Congress having already approved trillions of dollars in pandemic aid, infrastructure funding and economic relief, the Democratic majority are now negotiating a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, the Build Back Better Act, by which they hope to deliver President Biden's comprehensive “human infrastructure agenda.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR-3) said in our recent interview for VX News that this session of Congress has the potential to be the most consequential in American history. Could you elaborate on the significance of the negotiations currently underway.

While I agree with my dear friend and colleague Earl Blumenauer that this is a pivotal time in our ability to combat the climate crisis on a scale commensurate with what the science demands, one need look no further than the recent IPCC report, which was incredibly troubling. As I'm sure VX News readers saw, it reconfirms with high confidence, the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that the effects of the climate crisis are real, they are dangerous, and the situation is only going to get worse until we take the bold and aggressive action necessary to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

This should be a wakeup call for everyone who hasn't been fully engaged that the Congress must act now, and it must act boldly. To address what the President recently called, Code Red for Humanity, we have to look all across our portfolio of greenhouse gas emissions—whether from the cars we drive, the electricity we produce, or the ways we move goods and people, build buildings, or grow food, we have to find ways to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the board.

When you combine the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework—which is focused on so-called hard infrastructure: roads, bridges, water, broadband and the rest—with all the climate and energy initiatives in the reconciliation bill—the Build Back Better Act—we're finally able to achieve many of the goals that we set out to accomplish and meet our nationally determined contribution under the Paris Climate Accord.

What we hope to achieve in the run up to COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November is actual policy that meets our commitments. I know that the President will be making further announcements between now and then, but suffice it to say that this Build Back Better will put us on a path to cut pollution in half by 2030 if we're able to get the most robust provisions in that final package across the finish line. That's what I intend to do, and I know Earl and many of our colleagues do as well.

Speaking of COP 26, what's now is being prioritized by the House’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis?

Right now, what we're trying to do is make sure that when we go to Glasgow as the Select Committee in November, with the Speaker and, I presume, a few of our friends in the Senate, that we can have our heads held high that we actually met the nationally determined contribution that we created for ourselves and that President Obama began with in 2015.  The Build Back Better Act, when coupled with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework would get us there.

So, when we go to Glasgow, we need to have passed that legislation and signed it into law, then we can go with the international community able to look at our example and know that we didn't just talk, we acted. I worry about going to Scotland empty handed. If we expect other countries to follow our lead, we better lead ourselves. My friend, David Victor at UC San Diego talks a lot about climate action and the importance of followership, in other words, the importance of the United States taking actions that can be followed throughout the world. I hope that we're able to go to Glasgow having taken actions that can be easily followed by the industrialized world.

What benchmarks, as members are negotiating provisions of the Budget Resolution, should our readers be looking for in the next two weeks to give an indication of what has and has not been prioritized?

I put together a letter with 133 of my colleagues that really range the ideological spectrum within the House Democratic Caucus to reiterate the importance of some key principles that I and they will be looking for as we advance the Build Back Better Act in the House.  Those key principles, the five big picture items, include, briefly: (1) driving the United States towards a 100 percent carbon-free-energy powered electricity grid by 2035 and the promotion of electric vehicles consistent with that; (2) delivering on the basic right to clean water by replacing lead pipes and service lines—not a handful, but ultimately, all; (3) creating millions of high-quality well-paying union jobs in domestic clean energy and manufacturing sectors; (4) prioritizing justice and equity for low income and communities of color harmed by the legacy of toxic pollution; and (5) investing in natural infrastructure restoration and reclamation of damaged lands—which is something I've been specifically focused on as part of the Natural Resources Committee.

Just the other day a coalition of environmental organizations put out a really good letter on what they call “the climate test”—that the Build Back Better Act must put the US on a clear path to cutting pollution in half by 2030—and also lay out the data and the various aspects of the Build Back Better Act that will help us get there, breaking down how each provision contributes to reaching that target.

Senate Leader Schumer also put out an outline to get us 45 percent of the way to our goals, and then basically, the idea being that state and local government and the private sector can make up the difference. So, I'll be looking at those policies in that context, knowing that from a greenhouse gas reduction perspective, the most important are the clean energy tax incentives, which will be the Ways and Means Committee. Senator Tina Smith has really been leading on the clean electricity payment program that we have to make sure that we work with them and get it right in the House. There’s also clean vehicle incentives, like tax rebates for zero-emission vehicles that Senator Jeff Merkley has been leading in the Senate.

We're seeing it all coming to fruition in a very exciting way, and I think we have the collective will to get this done; we just have to stand firm. As the process stands right now, we’re marking these bills up in the House this week and next week, and then we're heading back to Washington on the 20th. The idea is to vote on or around the 27th on both the reconciliation bill—the Build Back Better Act—and on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, which is a very ambitious timeline.

I can tell you that in our Natural Resources Committee mark-up just couple days ago, my friends across the aisle were doing everything they could to slow down and delay our portion of the hearing often by bringing up things that are were completely irrelevant to our section of the bill. I expect that those types of tactics will be used in every committee for Republicans to try to slow down this process. But make no mistake, our committee chairs are focused, and they know they need to get this done. The Speaker and Leader Schumer have made very clear that is our objective and our collective will is there.

The next couple of weeks are going to be busy. Around the clock, we're going to do whatever it takes to get these initiatives across the finish line, and we're all watching very closely to see—for some of these issues like health care and child care—whether the Senate or House version prevails as the House version prevails or if they can meet in the middle somewhere. My hope is when we go back, that we're very, very close to just dotting the i's and crossing the t's before the end of the month,

Mike, your environmental credentials are well recognized, but given this budgeting process requires finding common ground and compromise—what have you learned about your colleagues’ local challenges and their political calculus from these intense infrastructure and budget reconciliation negotiations?

Well, I have become much less judgmental of my colleagues, because every one of them does their best, at least I hope that's the case, to represent their district and their constituents as well as they can. That includes the vast majority of my friends across the aisle as well. I have always tried to be fair and reasonable in my assessment of my colleagues, but getting to know them, speaking with them, and understanding their priorities and concerns has definitely opened my eyes.

Look, at the end of the day, we have to find those areas of common ground. We're not going to agree on everything, but I think it's worth trying to find those areas of common ground whenever we can. In this instance, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework provides a good outline for us on roads, bridges, broadband, and water.

I was very encouraged by some of the provisions on things like desalination, for example, which is a big priority in our area. I was able to secure, with the help of my colleagues, $250 million in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework for desalination as an example. We’ve got the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere in my district, in Carlsbad, so I'm always speaking with folks in the desalination world who are telling me about new innovations with renewable power for desalination and being able to do slant well drilling in a way that's far less impactful to marine life and so on.

That scenario will be able to come together, but there are other areas where it's more difficult, like electric vehicles. Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are very much in favor of electric vehicles, but others not so much.  My hope is that we can use these slim majorities that we have in the House and Senate to move forward in a robust way and accelerate the transformation of the automobile industry and, in the process, create good well-paying jobs. My hope is that in 20 to 30 years or when you go to buy your next electric vehicle that everything is source, supplied, and manufactured in the United States with union labor to whatever extent possible. I think we can get there if we are able to overcome the influence of the fossil fuel industry.

As all politics are essentially local, could you comment on San Diego’s recently approved new franchise agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric and the vibrant counter campaign to exit that contract to create a publicly-owned utility. Is pending federal infrastructure and clean energy investments impacted at all by who locally provides the power?

Well, I won't get in between the good people of San Diego and their decision around a public utility, but I can tell you that in principle I support community choice energy. It has led to a lot of spirited competition and good outcomes where some of our local communities are able to lower their electricity bills at the same time increase their percentage of renewable generation. Some of the real innovators in community choice have been in our region and district, so I'm following all that very closely.

That being said, for a large utility, I think that SDG&E is doing a fine job of increasing renewable generation, trying to deploy electric vehicle infrastructure throughout the region, and wildfire preparation and management of their physical infrastructure.

I was just there in Kearny Mesa in San Diego with Gina McCarthy a couple of weeks ago where they have a really state-of-the-art wildfire detection center. I wish all utilities would follow that model and do the same to protect their billions of dollars in physical infrastructure. The objective needs to be, whether it's a community choice entity or a large utility, how can we meet the demand of electricity consumption in a given territory will also dramatically ramping the percentage of renewable electricity generated?

 Does that mean in California, for example, that we need about 11 or 12 gigawatts worth, at least, of utility scale storage? I think so. Does it also mean that we can't have business as usual? From a procurement perspective, absolutely. So, I'm encouraged by a lot of what I'm seeing from the PUC in that regard, and I think you're going to see a lot more. Granted I'm a federal legislator so I don’t  have jurisdiction over what they're doing in San Francisco at the PUC or in Sacramento, but I watch very carefully and closely.

I also see that our electricity bills in California are quite competitive with the rest of the country. A lot of my colleagues across the country just have a distorted view what happens in California. They think we pay twice as much for electricity and that the power is off half the time, and it couldn't be further from the truth. We've been able to prove that you can dramatically accelerate the deployment of renewables at the same time keep bills competitive. so

What has been the appetite in the infrastructure and budget reconciliation negotiations for federally addressing nuclear waste storage at San Onofre?

As part of the Build Back Better Act? Not enough for my liking.

I can tell you that it's a difficult issue and a great challenge as long as I've served and will be for many years to come. The problems we're facing in San Onofre—where you've got roughly 1,600 tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel just 100 feet away from the Pacific Ocean and nowhere to move it—are greater than just San Onofre; it's a national problem. There are roughly 80 sites in 34 states across the country with spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites and nowhere to send it.

The federal government invested billions and billions of dollars into Yucca Mountain in Nevada. I had an opportunity to go visit before the pandemic, and I saw how we, collectively as the federal government, spent that money over many decades. The reality is that for both environmental and political reasons, that site is unlikely to be a permanent repository. So, we have to come up with a plan B, and we have to get on it quickly.

I've had a number of good discussions with the administration with Secretary Granholm, Advisor McCarthy, and others about next steps, and we've created a bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus. We've introduced and reintroduced a number of bills that were directly informed by a taskforce that I put together when I started in Congress chaired by the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Greg Jaczko, and our friend Len Herring, Retired Rear Admiral and former head of the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego. One of the most important bills is the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act, which says that for all the nation's spent fuel, move the waste first in the areas with the highest environmental risks. Specifically in our case, San Onofre has two active earthquake faults, rising sea levels, and 9 million people within 50 miles, so we know that you really couldn't pick a worse place to have built a nuclear power plant in terms of the long-term environmental impact.

So, I'm less concerned about moving the waste and more concerned about where we move it to. I think we can move it safely, but there are no interim storage sites, either. My exploration of interim storage leads me to believe that without a permanent repository moving forward, you'll find very little desire on the part of a community to want to store fuel on an interim site for fear that they would become the permanent repository.

With that being said, we got $20 million in last year's budget for consolidated interim storage, and we're going to move forward aggressively on that and on a permanent repository as well. It will ultimately take a governor from who knows which state trusting the federal government to do right by that state to work on a deal together to move waste to a place where the economic opportunity is worth whatever downside risks there may be.

Pivoting back to the budget negotiations taking place between now and the end of the September, is there any inclination on the part of those in Congress resistant to the inclusion of climate change funding in Build Back Better Act to change their positions given what all parts of the nation are experiencing this summer and fall re extreme weather events?

There's an acknowledgement that what we're seeing is unprecedented, but there's a persistent and unfortunate resistance to want to make the types of changes necessary to address the issues in the long term. So, for example, Hurricane Ida has devastated much of Louisiana, New York, and New Jersey. I have good friends that represent some of those states, and without calling out any names, a good friend who's a Republican who cares deeply about his community that has been impacted greatly by Hurricane Ida. But despite that, while he wants a lot more for resilience to future hurricanes and future large-scale events, the desire to make the types of changes to our power generation and wean ourselves off the dirty fossil fuel and carbon emissions that have created or exacerbated many of the challenges, there's a real reticence and real reluctance.

I can only point back to the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has had on our political process. for decades. The only way we're going to really get a policy that's reflective of the needs and concerns and the science is if we have fundamental campaign finance reform. And if we can  decouple the fossil fuel industry from their extraordinary political impact on elections. Now, there are those in the environmental movement and the clean energy industry, who are also involved in politics but not nearly to the same degree. And I think if the American people really knew the extent to which members of Congress are funded by the fossil fuel industry and the big polluters, I think they would be disappointed, but perhaps not surprised, I don't know.  But it's a real problem, and the only way we're going to really address the climate crisis long run in my view, is if we address that fundamental campaign finance issue.

Given your above response, is President Biden's announcement this week that he plans to ramp up solar to produce 45 percent of US electricity by 2050, a practical goal?

Over time it is. And if you look at what we've been able to achieve in California where— looking at the California ISO app that I always bring with me to the House of Representatives—currently 45 percent of demand is served by renewables, of which 81.8 percent is solar.  So, you figure, if we're doing it in California, we can do it in the nation as a whole. If we're smart and strategic about how we scale things like utility scale storage and properly integrating zero emission transportation into the grid of the future, I think we can get there. But we're going to need more investment though in grid infrastructure and the next generation grid, and, I worry that on that scale the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework doesn't have enough for grid modernization. We're going to need more in the coming decades to hit those objectives. One of the things the federal government is very good at doing is setting those big goals. If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time, so I'm encouraged that we're setting big goals again.

Once again, in our most recent interview of Rep. Blumenauer, he said it was time, in light of climate risk, to reassess federal disaster relief aid to realign incentives for rebuilding in fire and flood zones. Do you share that sentiment?

FEMA  is really spread thin right now. When you look not only at the natural disasters that are occurring, but at the pandemic as well and what FEMA’s had to do in the wake of COVID-19, I am very concerned that they're spread too thin. We're going to have to either provide more resources or more focus, probably some of both as necessary. To the extent that we can predict with greater certainty, climate related disasters, then, I think that focus is warranted, but the challenge is that making those predictions is not always an easy thing to do.

Lastly Congressman, as a participant in the first VerdeXchange Clean and Greentech Marketmakers Conference 15 years ago, what do these current Infrastructure and Build Back Better budget negotiations mean for your constituents in San Diego and Orange County?

Anybody that lives on the Southern California coast knows that between the eroding coastline and collapsing coastal bluffs, record droughts and year-round wildfire seasons that the climate crisis is no longer theoretical. This is real and something that we're living and experiencing in our lives every day in coastal Southern California. And we know that it will only get worse if we don't take the type of bold steps necessary to meet the moment. I would like to think that there are representatives in districts all across the United States like mine that are feeling impacts of the climate crisis right now,and will take the kind of bold and aggressive steps necessary, even if it means that they stand up to the fossil fuel industry and the big polluters, many of whom have line the pockets of some of my colleagues in the Congress for far too long.

“When you combine the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework—which is focused on so-called hard infrastructure: roads, bridges, water, broadband and the rest—with all the climate and energy initiatives in the reconciliation bill—the Build Back Better Act—we're finally able to achieve many of the goals that we set out to accomplish and meet our nationally determined contribution under the Paris Climate Accord.”