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Senate Budget Has Funds To Ensure Infrastructure Works As The Climate Changes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today President Biden visits key lawmakers after Senate Democrats agreed on a budget framework. We really do not have a lot of details. But this measure, worth $3 1/2 trillion, is a big deal and not just because of the price tag. Unlike other bills, a budget resolution can be passed by Democrats alone. So the president wants to stuff in a lot of his priorities. That seems to include a lot of infrastructure and environmental and climate provisions that did not get into a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes some Republican support.

We spoke of both bills yesterday with Michael Regan, the president's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The bipartisan bill includes $47 billion for infrastructure resilience.

MICHAEL REGAN: I think when you look at those billions of dollars for climate resiliency, not only is it focused on bridges and roads, it's also focused on natural, resilient measures that we can put in place with our lakes, our streams, our rivers to prevent erosion and to have these water bodies better protected from what we know to be the extreme impacts of climate change.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of some of the news of this year - trouble with the Texas power grid that seems to be related to extreme weather events, continued trouble in California, with shortages of water and wildfires and problems with the electric power grid there. Are these the kinds of things that you're able to address with this money?

REGAN: This money will have resources, significant resources to address those infrastructure issues. And there's a combination of the Department of Energy and EPA that will be sure to see that these resources are spent in the best ways possible. We have to have a resilient infrastructure that not only can withstand the impacts of climate change but can facilitate cleaner, greener energy.

INSKEEP: But this bipartisan measure has a lot less than the president wanted for climate measures, something like one-tenth of the money for electric vehicles, even the water infrastructure measures, that I believe are cut significantly - not as much for power infrastructure. Why was that acceptable?

REGAN: You know, we have to start somewhere. And I have to say, this is a historic start. Yes, there will be more resources needed. But the resources contained in this bipartisan infrastructure - it's more than a down payment. It is making this country competitive and resilient to the climate issues we're facing.

I think we can't really look at solely one of the tools in the president's toolbox. He's not lessening his ambition. He's working with the tools that he has before him. And this bipartisan infrastructure framework is one of those tools.

INSKEEP: Not every Democrat necessarily signs on to every one of the president's priorities. And you need every single Democrat in the Senate, even to pass this second budget reconciliation measure at some point this year, which can include things that Republicans don't like. What are you assured you will have in the reconciliation bill that you didn't get into the bipartisan bill?

REGAN: I can tell you that if anyone knows anything about bipartisanship and getting things through the Senate, it's this president. They're working extremely hard with members of both sides of the aisle. We cannot forget that it creates millions of jobs. And it puts this country in a really competitive footing.

INSKEEP: People who are following this closely are curious about something called a clean energy standard, which I'd like to try to roughly define here. It's the idea that the government - you - would set standards for electric utilities especially and say, you need to have this percentage of your energy by a certain year be from clean sources. Are you going to set a clean energy standard in the reconciliation bill?

REGAN: That is one of the goals that the White House has put in place. And it's important because when you have a clean energy standard, you have a level playing field across all of the states so that we know what the targets are and that as a country we can work towards that together. By the way, when you have those rules of the road, it makes it easier for innovation to occur. It makes it easier to define certainty down the road. But it also creates a framework that's a rising tide for all of our communities so that we can incorporate environmental justice and equity, inclusion into that national framework.

INSKEEP: I think you said that the president wants to get a clean energy standard into the reconciliation bill. Is it your impression that all Democrats are on board with that approach?

REGAN: You know, I'm - I'll leave that to the experts. What I'm hearing is a very favorable response from many people on both sides of the aisle. There are things in there for the American people that equate to jobs, global competitiveness, a strong infrastructure and preparation for climate change.

INSKEEP: You know, the last time we spoke, Administrator, I asked about eliminating fossil fuels. And you didn't go there. You spoke of an all-hands-on-deck approach, meaning all kinds of energy would be needed in some way. You spoke of carbon capture 'cause you're going for a carbon neutral America. Is it clearer to you now that you've had a little time in the job, what the role of fossil fuels is going to be after, say, 2035, when you want to have net-zero emissions electricity in this country?

REGAN: You know, I can say that when you look at where the markets are taking us, when you look at the technologies that are available, from a cost-effective standpoint, we're going to see a lot less fossil fuels in this system. And I don't think that's a secret. But in order to meet the timeline, the aggressive timeline that the president has laid out, I think we cannot ignore that there may be technologies that can capture emissions from systems, like natural gas, that we have to deploy. It is an all-hands-on-deck. At some point in the foreseeable future, we will have a zero-emitting carbon future. We're rowing in the same direction. And we're excited about the potential.

INSKEEP: Last thing that I've got, Administrator - I was looking back at the joebiden.com climate document. This is what the president ran on. And he used the word irreversible. He promised irreversible change toward net-zero emissions over the next few decades. What can you do in this area that would be irreversible, that Democrats wouldn't lose the next election and a Republican president would undo?

REGAN: You know, it's the brilliance of his whole-of-government strategy. You're not just talking about regulations as the only tool. We're talking about massive investments with both the public and private sector. We're talking about the evolution of technologies that we'd never had at our fingertips before. We're talking about tax incentives.

This is a packaged approach that creates so much momentum, creates so many jobs, protects so many people and public health that that level of momentum would be almost impossible to reverse. And the question then would be, why would you want to reverse such success?

INSKEEP: Administrator Michael Regan, thanks for your time.

REGAN: Thank you, Steve - enjoyed the conversation.

INSKEEP: We spoke with Regan yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "CANOPY AND STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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