Audio by: Megan Bergeron | Writing by: Callie Rhoades | Socials by: Wangyuxuan Xu
What do you need to know about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill?
In November of 2021, President Biden signed into law a landmark $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, H.R. 3684 – Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, that will have significant impacts on how we address the United States’ current and future infrastructure. These infrastructure changes are combating some of the largest contributors to climate change and additionally will put in place new infrastructure that will address our changing climate future.
Here are some of the main takeaways from the bill:
- The bill allocated $66 billion to passenger rail infrastructure and $39 billion to modernize public transit
- Electric vehicle-related infrastructure was a significant section of the bill. This provision will allocate money for implementation of charging stations, electrifying buses and ferries, and reducing cost charging, among other items. $15 billion is allocated for this investment
- There are significant funds for climate remediation projects including methane emissions from abandoned oil wells and Superfund site clean-up projects
- The bill includes important climate adaptation provisions to address impacts of extreme weather, forest fires, floods, and heat island effects in cities
- There are additional provisions to address electric vehicle battery supply chain issues and impacts
- The bill calls for a $65 billion dollar investment in upgrading and expanding the U.S.’s broadband and internet capabilities
- Other notable provisions are focused on: carbon capture, clean hydrogen, and water infrastructure
What is Missing?
While this bill provides significant investment across multiple categories of infrastructure, not surprisingly, there remain critics on all sides — some wanting more investment and some viewing it as too expensive. Some were disappointed by the lack of provisions designed to phase out coal and gas. The final version of the bill also does not include Biden’s proposed $400 million allocated to expand caregiving for disabled and elderly citizens. Additionally, provisions for workforce development were removed in the negotiation process.
What does this bill mean for California?
This bill will allocate significant funds to improve the state’s infrastructure, including:
$80 million is allocated to address wildfires and other natural disasters. This is significant for California as the West’s wildfire season becomes longer and more severe.
Public Transportation and Electric Vehicles
California is designated to receive around $9.5 billion to improve public transportation across the state. Over the next 5 years, the state is additionally expected to receive $384 million for electric vehicle charging stations and other EV infrastructure.
California’s water infrastructure is in dire need of repair. The state is slated to receive over $3 billion for elimination of lead pipes and to conduct overall updates to improve California’s drinking water quality.
So, What’s Next?
Now that this bipartisan bill has been signed into law, the next challenge will be to quickly and effectively distribute the funds. An on-going challenge will be implementing the provisions and distributing the Americans watching the bill closing will also be keeping an eye out for equity in the implementation of these provisions. And U.S. citizens will have to wait and see how this historic bill will not only help them in their day-to-day lives, but maybe more importantly, in their—and the planet’s—future.
Ken: California is probably going to get about $375 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. And the state and its own budget is going to add another billion.
Ethan: That’s Ken Alex, Executive Producer of Climate Break, as well as the Director of Project Climate at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley Law. We sat down to talk about the aftermath of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill, passed by President Biden in November 2021, to see how it will affect the climate.
Ken: One of the provisions in the infrastructure bill is a significant amount of funding for electric buses. That’s really pretty great, because it’s an area where the turnover rate is relatively slow. And it’s hard for school districts, which are basically by these buses to turn over and get new stock and they need help. But once this starts happening, you’re increasing the market. You’ll have market penetration and the price will come down and there’ll be new innovation there. You know, there, there are companies that are looking at how you transform. You simply replace the combustion engine and existing buses at a much lower cost, as opposed to a whole new bus. There are bus companies that are going to be all over this.
Ethan: Californians drive approximately 300 billion miles a year. Shell has just announced that it’s going to start putting electric vehicle chargers in their gas stations.
Ken: And also because buses have repeating loops. They seem ideal for the type of infrastructure that you need, because you always know when you need to recharge. And then maintenance costs are lower. So over time, it’s going to be a really big value for local governments and for school districts.
Ethan: To learn more about the infrastructure bill, please go to climatebreak.org, or wherever you get your podcast. I’m Ethan Elkind and this was Climate Break.
Ethan: Ken Alex, the Executive Producer of Climate Break, as well as the Director of Project Climate at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley Law, sat down with me to talk about the aftermath of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill, passed by President Biden in November of 2021, to see how it will affect the climate.show more
Ethan: Welcome to Climate Break. I’m pleased to be joined by Ken Alex, who is the Director of Project Climate at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, and of course the godfather of Climate Break, because this show was his concept. And prior to that, he had a long career with the Attorney General’s office and advising governor Jerry Brown. We talked about this issue about six, eight months ago, which is the infrastructure bill. And of course the long running joke, “Infrastructure week in Washington, DC,” where President Joe Biden has made that happen and actually has been able to get passed through the Congress a bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. So our conversation earlier this year was really about the sense of a hypothetical Infrastructure Bill. But now we know what the provisions are. Of course there’s another Social Policy Reconciliation Bill looming out there. We won’t talk about that now. We just want to talk about the Infrastructure Bill and what its impact on climate change will be. So, so pleased to be joined once again by Ken. And Ken, the question is what’s the Infrastructure Bill’s impact on climate change?
Ken: Well, first of all, thanks, Ethan. And I should introduce you, the voice of Climate Break, long-time Director of the Climate Program at the Center for Law, Energy, Environment, and currently the interim Executive Director. Great to chat with you. And you know, what I want to say first is the fact that this bill passed and has a trillion dollars of spending over a period of years is pretty incredible. And I think it has not gotten nearly the attention or accolades or recognition that it should. This is a truly U.S-changing piece of legislation.
Ethan: Why do you think it hasn’t gotten those accolades?
Ken: Well, I mean, it’s part of the political, sort of, situation in the country. No matter what you do that’s good, it’s attacked and ignored. Even though this is quasi bipartisan, meaning it got a few Republican votes in the Senate and a few Republican votes in the House, it’s primarily a Democratic bill and it’s a Democratic administration and, you know, going back now, 20 plus years, the party that’s out of power and never gives any credit to anything, to the party in power. It’s a complicated bill. It covers a huge amount of ground. And nobody has really explained that in a way in bite-sized pieces to people. And I will say, I’ve looked at the bill in a reasonable amount of detail. It’s massive. And I can’t tell you what’s in it. So, I mean, I can tell you some of the major categories and we’ll talk about that in a bit. It covers so much ground and it’s going to touch the lives of almost everybody in the country. That’s amazing. And I think we should be really pleased that we have a chance to rebuild some of our infrastructure, which everybody knows is crumbling in a lot of places. And we need to do this. And the beauty of this bill, which we’ll talk about in a minute, is a lot of what it does to move our response to climate change forward in a bunch of different ways. So let me pass it back to you and ask you, what are some of the highlights for you? And I’ll certainly talk about that as well.
Ethan: Well, there’s some great investments in passenger rail infrastructure that really stood out to me. $66 billion in rail, which a lot of that could go potentially to California’s high speed rail system, which could really be transformative for that project, maybe actually get it to the bay area. So that would be big. But those other passenger rail networks around the country, that would be really transformational for. I mean, I’d like to see more money, but that’s still a big infusion. And then the electric vehicle charging piece also really stood out to me. And then the last piece is just the climate adaptation side of things. I think Senator Bill Cassidy in Louisiana was part of that bipartisan Republican vote. And that was kind of the price of his involvement was making sure places like Louisiana and the Gulf coast were four to five against the extreme weather, flooding impacts, those kinds of things.
Ken: Yeah. Those are, those are all really highlights. I want to look at a couple of the smaller things, because one of the things that I see is, it doesn’t all have to be government investments. you mentioned the infrastructure. California is probably going to get about $375 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and the state and its own budget is going to add another billion. So there is a very significant government public investment in EV infrastructure that’s going to change the face of how consumers interact with electric vehicles. But that’s just the start because what that government investment means is that you’re going to reduce the price of that infrastructure, you’re going to make it much more broadly available and you’re going to, I think, accelerate quite substantially private sector investment. Another example of that, one of the provisions in the Infrastructure Bill is a significant amount of funding for electric buses. That’s really pretty great, because it’s an area where the turnover rate is relatively slow. And it’s hard for school districts, which are basically by these buses, to turn over and get new stock and they need help. But once this starts happening, you’re increasing the market. You’ll have market penetration and the price will come down and there’ll be new innovation there. You know, there, there are companies that are looking at how you transform. You simply replace the combustion engine and existing buses at a much lower cost, as opposed to a whole new bus. There are bus companies that are going to be all over this. And also because buses have repeating loops. They seem ideal for the type of infrastructure that you need, because you always know when you need to recharge. And then maintenance costs are lower. So over time, it’s going to be a really big value for local governments and for school districts.
Ethan: Yeah. The fixed routes, as you mentioned, and also, they’re only going during the morning times and the afternoon pickup for it. So there’s a potential that they could make money during the day when they’re plugging in and charging for the afternoon to provide grid services, maybe charging at a variable rate or even discharging from the buses back into the grid. And from a public health standpoint, I mean, we’ve got kids riding around in diesel buses, breathing in fumes. So a lot of public health savings as well. But I think it’s an interesting point, I mean, you’re right about jumpstarting private industry investment. We saw that with the stimulus 2009 and 2010 that Obama passed are a response to that great recession. And I think that did help jumpstart, battery price decreases, solar and wind price decreases, but somebody who just said – something I hadn’t really thought about before, which is on the charging side, we kind of take it as a given that, for example, super fast charging, it just is expensive to put in these super fast charging stations. I’m talking about 350 kilowatt chargers that, you know, within 10 minutes you could get 150 miles of range, which is close to gas station charging times, but you know, to think that, well, maybe these, high powered charging stations don’t need to cost 80 grand. Maybe we can bring the cost down to 10 grand, you know, similar as we saw the battery price decrease. I haven’t studied that market as much, but it is pretty exciting to think about that side of things.
Ken: I think it’s almost a certainty, and Shell has just announced that it’s going to start doing electric vehicle charging in gas stations. And you know, that conceivably is a game changer and they’re going to be looking to bring the price down for sure. There are different technologies that are already working their way to market around charging. So, this is a huge set of incentives. I’m methane obsessive, so I am particularly interested in a very big amount of funding to start dealing with the problem of orphan wells.
Ethan: Will you just explain why methane is important?
Ken: Methane is the second biggest greenhouse gas after CO2. It’s natural gas. It’s emitted from oil and gas operations. It’s derived from agriculture, particularly from livestock. It’s admitted from coal operations. And from waste. And it has a much higher greenhouse gas potential. In other words, it increases warming at a much greater rate, like 80 times over the 20 years more than CO2. And it lasts in the atmosphere for a lot shorter time. So if we get rid of it now it’ll actually be out of the atmosphere in a period of years. That means that the opportunity to reduce methane emissions has a real benefit for the environment and to deal with climate change in a way that CO2 actually takes longer to get out of the environment. It’s a product, so if you capture it instead of emitting it, you can use it. One of the sources, unfortunately, of methane are what are called orphan wells, which are oil wells that have been abandoned that nobody takes responsibility for. And there are thousands and thousands of them. There’s thousands in California and there’s thousands more in the rest of the country. The Infrastructure Bill actually provides a significant chunk of money to get some of that containment of those wells started. It’s an important piece and it’s something that, you know, we really need to do. And California’s looking to do more of that. So this will jumpstart California’s efforts for sure.
Ethan: What about on the renewable energy side, there was a provision in there around transmission investments, and that seems to be a limiting factor for deployment of renewables around the country, that there aren’t transmission lines to some of these prime renewable energy zones, whether it’s solar or wind. And I’ve read and heard people like our faculty director, Dan Farber, talk about some of the provisions that, you know, one of the holdups to transmission development is local opposition and the patchwork of laws governing the permitting of these installations. Buses are expensive to build. And there is some effort to streamline that, but just curious what you make of those provisions.
Ken: FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has authority to a certain extent over how electricity travels across grids, but there was a court case that limited that authority. The infrastructure bill actually changes that provision and gives FERC back the authority that it thought it had.
Ethan: Because they have authority over natural gas pipelines.
Ken: They have, they do. But there’s some limitations on the electricity side that are not on the gas side. And well, there used to be, now at least some of that is taken away. Because states historically like California have a very significant authority over their own grids. And that’s created some issues around regional grids. But now that FERC has some additional authority, it doesn’t necessarily need to use it, it just needs to get states to work more cooperatively within regions. California has already been doing some work. They have some market agreements with their neighbors, when they have excess supply, and that has been working pretty well. But it can be expanded quite a bit. And, a lot of the grids don’t interact well with the rest of the grid. And it’s also aging infrastructure. And as you noted, it’s really hard to rebuild. There’s all kinds of issues around where you are located, how you do it, how much it costs. And so the hope is that there are new dollars for some of that work, and there’s a new authority to give FERC some authority to get states to work more cooperatively. We’ll see. It’s always a tricky issue, but I think it’s a big step forward.
Ethan: And there’s some money too, right?
Ken: There is some money. Absolutely.
Ethan: So Ken, let’s talk about the potential dark side of this Infrastructure Bill, which is highway infrastructure, and a lot of the transportation investments, you know, are sold as roads and bridges. A lot of that means potentially encouraging more single occupant vehicles, higher vehicle miles traveled overall, which really undermines our climate goals, even as vehicles are turning towards zero emission technologies. And this bill, the way it’s structured, gives a lot of flexibility to states to spend the money the way they want to. Right now we have, from a climate perspective, a favorable US Department of Transportation, I think will make sure that a lot of the dollars that go out in the new grant programs will be more for climate friendly infrastructure. But of course, that, you know, that may not be the case in the next administration. And right now we know a lot of states are pretty biased towards highway infrastructure. So are you worried that this bill is going to make things worse from a sort of overall vehicle miles traveled standpoint?
Ken: California has the slogan of Fix It First, which I think, the idea of it is that we have a lot of infrastructure. We have a lot of roads and a lot of them are in trouble. They need to be resurfaced, bridges need to be fixed, et cetera, et cetera. And so at least in California there’s a very high likelihood that the vast majority of those funds will be used to fix and upgrade existing structures and not for new highways. California has driven 300 billion vehicle miles a year. It’s an enormous number. And your point is very well taken that the more we build roads and access the more miles we drive and the more climate implications that has. Not just from a fuel standpoint, but also from how we use land and other things related to impacts on climate. So yes, there is some level of concern that, you know, this creates a new highway boom. But I think that in most jurisdictions the public really wants the existing roads and structures to be fixed. And I think, you know, for example, in the city vertically, where I try to ride my bike and run into potholes at a very high rate, I think there’s a very significant interest among the public and having the roads fixed and not a huge contemplation of building more roads, but how it comes across in other parts of the country, I know less about, but I guess we’ll see.
Ethan: Yeah. What about on the climate resilience, climate adaptation side, anything stands out to you?
Ken: Yeah, it’s really one of the great portions of the bill. A recognition of some things that we need to do, we know climate change is here. You mentioned Louisiana and the hurricanes and some of the issues that they face. In California, a lot of it’s around forest fires. There’s money to think about how we use forest lands in a different way, and to try to deal with that. There’s money dealing with flood control, very important obviously. There’s some specific provisions about heat impacts. We shouldn’t forget that climate change is often about heat. There are provisions to try to deal with heat island impact in cities. So there’s money for cool pavements, for trees. There’s money for interesting innovations like clean energy on old mine sites. Really thinking about using existing land in different ways. It’s a new day, in a way, to really start thinking about resilience in a broad spectrum. I’m very hopeful that this money will start to get communities to think differently about how they deal with climate.
Ethan: And then another provision that I forgot to mention earlier was around the electric vehicle battery supply chain, some provisions in there to boost up more of a domestic supply, which is controversial. And every time I talk about electric vehicles, I always get questions around, Are batteries bad for the environment? What about the mining impacts? And there’s a lot of truth to that, but a lot of that is because the mining is happening abroad, where it’s not as regulated as it would be in the United States. And so I think if we can get our processes right here, all things being equal, it’s better to have it happen domestically. There’s national security reasons for that, and local economic development opportunities to help rebuild some of our hollowed out rural communities to get them feeling invested in the electric vehicle transition. So I think those provisions could be impactful, but, you know, I think from an environmentalist perspective, everyone gets a little nervous when you talk about mining, even though it’s something that’s unavoidable and necessary for this transition.
Ken: Yeah, I would add to that, that batteries are heavy, you don’t want to ship them, and you don’t want to be shipping batteries from China. That’s going to generate a heck of a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. You want to have local production if you possibly can. Yes, there are impacts of everything that we do. And so we have to be serious about evaluating those impacts, about reducing them. Potentially from what I’ve read, the area in the Salton Sea could be a huge source of lithium, but it’s also a very sensitive environmental area and so those need to be balanced. This is not a new issue for any of us in the environmental world. We have to be sensitive to it, but I don’t think, given where we are with climate change, that we can simply say, we’re not going to do it because we need to be sensitive about those impacts. We just need to figure out how to do them in an intelligent way and move forward. And we have to do it quickly because climate change is not giving us a lot of lead time.
Ethan: So other provisions in the bill that we haven’t mentioned that you think are worth highlighting, what are the bite size …? You’re the messaging guru now.
Ken: Well, I think there’s some interesting things worth mentioning. There’s a provision for carbon capture, which is something that because we’re trying to get to what’s called carbon neutrality, meaning that we’re not emitting additional carbon into the atmosphere. We can’t do that solely by reducing emissions. We can’t get to zero emissions. One of the key strategies is around carbon capture and carbon sequestration. There’s growing effort around technology to actually capture carbon CO2 directly from the atmosphere, and there’s money in this bill to do some research and development, which I think is quite appropriate. There’s also some money for promoting clean hydrogen. We haven’t talked about that. It;s another way to go about electric vehicles, it’s another way to go about power plants. Just like we talked about with lithium and batteries, there are issues with how you generate hydrogen. It can take quite a lot of energy. It also can be from sources that are themselves emitters of carbon. It’s another area though that has a lot of potential and we need to look at it very carefully. There’s provisions on building efficiency, which is something that in California, we haven’t done as well as we have hoped to at this point. We have about 14 million existing buildings. Many of them are houses, but they need retrofitting. We need to rethink how we’re promoting retrofitting. So that’s a place where money from the federal government in this bill will be helpful. I think a lot of it is about jump-starting the private sector, making initial investments, getting things moving, getting things to have a cost curve that starts to reduce. And then I think you’ll see more and more investment and you’ll get to a tipping point and we’ll forget that it was ever an issue.
Ethan: How soon do you think we’re going to start seeing the effects of the spending in this bill?
Ken: That’s a really good question, because one of the great challenges in government programs is always getting money out the door, and, you know, people are frustrated when, when the money doesn’t come out the door. On the other hand, if the government spends money in a way that is a failure or is corrupt or is distorted, then you’ll never hear the end of it. And so it has to be a trade off here of doing it well, doing it carefully, but doing it, at least a chunk of the money with some alacrity. And so we’ll see. My expectation is that some agencies of the federal government will be good at it, some agencies will be less good at it, and some agencies may be quite bad at it. And so I think it’ll be a mixed bag. I suspect that some of the funds out of the Department of Transportation and Department of Energy, they’re pretty good at getting some big dollars out the door and I suspect that will continue.
Ethan: Also some of the money’s going to revamp or add additional resources to existing programs. So they already have a process, but where they have to start new programs, you know, do new rulemaking, that’s going to take a while for sure. And then of course they might run into the bus of local and state government policies and permitting and on and on. So there are some question marks.
Ken: All of those things are major issues. It’s going to take a concerted effort to get dollars to people. A lot of it is going out to states and you know, some of it in the form of blocks, with guidelines. And so a fair amount of this is going to be on states to get the money out the door from the federal government. And hopefully there are processes in place to do that. I know California, you’ve identified a lot of the issues around permitting, around the environmental review, et cetera. But going back to your point about batteries and other things, if you don’t do a smart environmental review, you can create all kinds of new problems. And there’ll be, you know, there’ll be community issues as well. Some communities will really want these dollars. Some of them won’t want them. Some of them will be good at getting the dollars, some of them won’t. And so we have to really think seriously about the issues of equity. I know that that’s part of this infrastructure package. We didn’t even talk about broadband and water, which also had implications for climate, but are pretty significant chunks of the bill as well that have a lot of implications for communities.
Ethan: Anything else that you wanna comment on about the bill?
Ken: I don’t think I know anything else about the bill. A couple of things that are missing because everybody always wants to bash it. Um, it would have been nice to see some coal and gas phase out provisions. We may see that and build back better, the next potential large bill. They took out a lot of the provisions around workforce development and that’s, I think that’s unfortunate. There’ll be other opportunities to fill some of that in. But, you know, I do want to end up where I started, which is I hope people come to appreciate just how impressive and expansive and beneficial this bill is, and the actions that will come from it.
Ethan: All right. Well you heard it here, hopefully not first, but you’ve definitely heard it here in terms of the provisions that can impact people’s daily lives and also really address the climate crisis that we face across the country. So thank you, Ken Alex, for joining us on Climate Break to give us the rundown and we’ll see this other social policy bill passes, and then we’ll be able to have another episode talking about that federal bill.
Ken: Look forward to it. Thanks Ethan.
Ethan: To learn more about the Infrastructure Bill, please go to climatebreak.org, or wherever you get your podcast. I’m Ethan Elkind and this was Climate Break.