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The Senate Climate Deal Promises a Safer Future for Birds—If It Passes

And just like that, hope springs when you least expect it. After many months of crushing setbacks in federal climate policy—from the slow dismantling and then collapse of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislative behemoth, to the Supreme Court disarming the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases in June—experts are optimistic about the potential impact and success of a landmark bill announced late last week.

The bill, called the Inflation Reduction Act, includes $369 billion in climate and clean energy spending, which would make it by far the nation’s largest-ever investment in ratcheting down planet-heating emissions. To pay for it, the government would raise taxes on corporations, close tax loopholes and boost enforcement, and allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs.

Crucially, the legislation has the vocal support of Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who brokered the surprise deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. To date Manchin has been the thorn in Biden’s side, toppling his efforts to move climate policy through Congress.

It’s not yet a done deal, however. The bill will almost certainly need the support of every Senate Democrat, but Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, like Manchin a party-line-straddler, has yet to indicate how she’ll vote. Its language will also have to survive a review from the Senate parliamentarian. But if it clears those hurdles, the legislation is expected to pass the House and head to Biden’s desk for his signature. Schumer could bring it to a vote as soon as this week.

Climate experts are nearly united in their support for the bill, which would reduce emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, according to Senate Democrats. That projection squares with a preliminary assessment from the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, which puts the potential cuts at 31 to 44 percent. Those emission reductions would get the United States close to hitting Biden’s target of bringing emissions down by 50 percent by the end of the decade—a lofty goal that would keep the country on track to prevent global temperature rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is needed to avoid the most disruptive societal and ecological transformations.

Climate experts are nearly united in their support for the bill.

To accomplish this, the legislation would invest in clean energy and electric vehicles, and build resilience into landscapes such as forests, farmlands, and coastal habitats. “The ability for the United States to make good on our promises to reduce our carbon emissions and meet the Paris climate goals is not possible without this level of investment, and that’s really important for birds,” says Sarah Rose, vice president of Audubon’s climate initiative. “It’s exciting, and it creates a sense of optimism that we didn’t have before.”

The bill would reduce emissions largely through investing in renewable energy, primarily by extending tax credits that encourage the solar and wind industries to build new utility-scale projects. Most exciting to Garry George, director of Audubon’s clean energy initiative, is the bill’s investment in transmission lines. Capturing energy from the wind and sun at massive scale is only meaningful if we have the means to deliver the electricity where it’s needed. “Well-funded transmission is the key that unlocks a number of projects because everybody then can distribute their energy,” he says—for example, from the windiest places like Wyoming to other states in the west.

The potential new build-out of wind, solar, and transmission presents some risks to birds. Raptors and other birds can collide with transmission lines, while wind and solar projects can displace habitat. George’s team, with other collaborators, has already been working with federal agencies and renewable developers to identify locations where clean energy can be constructed quickly with the fewest impacts to birds and wildlife. Research into technologies to detect and prevent harm to birds is evolving as the clean energy industries mature. For example, the need to carry energy produced by offshore wind turbines under the seafloor and to terrestrial power stations has created “a whole new industry of underground cables,” George says, which if implemented on land could avoid the issue of bird collisions with power lines. “As this big build out happens, I’m expecting to see more development and implementation of these kinds of technologies.”

Some birds will inevitably be harmed by the new projects, but the consequences will be worse if we don’t transition to clean energy, Rose says. “We know from Audubon’s climate research that the most significant warming scenarios are fatal for a lot of bird species and really detrimental to a lot of our most vulnerable communities.”

To help preserve a livable climate for people and birds, the bill makes significant investments in ecosystems that both absorb carbon emissions and support wildlife. Birds could see significant benefits on the nation’s working lands through $20 billion in funding for “climate-smart agriculture.” That broad term refers to helping farmlands store more carbon and making them more resilient to climate change through practices such as planting cover crops, changing how livestock graze, or irrigating more efficiently. The bill steers that money to federal farm bill programs that improve the sustainability of farming operations, often by conserving grasslands and other bird habitat. More farmers want to participate in those programs than current funding allows. If approved, the bill would be “a historic investment into programs that we know are popular and are effective,” says Aviva Glaser, senior director of agriculture policy at the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s just a huge deal and we’re very excited about it.”

Cattle grazing in shortgrass prairie on an Audubon-certified conservation ranch in Wyoming. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

Particularly exciting, Glaser says, is the potential to protect birds and fight climate change by preventing grasslands from being plowed under for crops or bulldozed for development. “We’re losing millions of acres of grasslands every year to conversion to cropland and development and other uses,” she says. As a result, grassland birds are among the most imperiled in North America, where populations have plummeted by more than 40 percent since 1966. That habitat loss also contributes to climate change, because grasslands hold huge amounts of carbon. And they’re resilient sinks, scientists say, because they store the carbon safely in the soil, unlike forests, which release it to the atmosphere when wildfire hits.

The bill holds equally exciting potential for forests and the birds that live there, says Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests. “We are ecstatic,” he tells Audubon, about the $5 billion in spending on forests. “Not only is it important for the scale of funding provided, but it’s what the funding is being provided for.”

Among the notable investments is the $700 million in grants through the Forest Legacy Program, which will use conservation easements and purchases of private land to make sure forest habitat remains habitat. The program has conserved 2.8 million acres to date, and Daley calls it “by far the federal government’s most important tool for helping to conserve private forests that might otherwise be converted for development.”

The bill also provides $450 million to help private landowners manage forests to store more carbon and be more resilient to climate change—practices that often come with benefits for birds, Daley says. And it carves out $1.5 billion in grants for cities and towns to plant trees, which has potential to address long-standing inequities. “A map of trees in virtually any city in America is a map of income and it’s a map of race in ways that transcend income,” he says. “Some people not only don’t get the cooling effect of trees—it can be more than 20 degrees hotter in some neighborhoods that don’t have trees—but they also don’t get things like getting to see birds come into their neighborhoods.”

If the bill makes it past roadblocks and becomes law, the work will have only just begun.

The bill isn’t without its compromises. Among the concessions to Manchin, who represents a coal-heavy state and has personally reaped millions from selling fossil fuels, are mandates that the federal government continue to offer up its lands and waters for fossil fuel production, essentially killing Biden’s earlier pledge to end that program. The deal would require the Interior Department to conduct previously canceled offshore lease sales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and in the Gulf of Mexico, including the largest offshore auction in the nation’s history. For 10 years after the bill is enacted, Interior can sell leases for renewable energy only if it also offers acres for fossil fuels. And this fall, in a separate bill, congressional Democrats will lead an effort to speed up permitting for new energy projects, potentially benefiting both clean and fossil energy, while also expediting a gas pipeline in the Senator’s home state. Still, experts think these compromises are worth the tradeoff. “The poison pill is overwhelmed by the good parts of it,” George says.

At the same time, the deal includes major reforms to the oil and gas program that environmental groups have sought for years. The changes include increasing royalty rates the government charges for oil and gas produced on federal property, raising the minimum per-acre bid for onshore leases to $10 from $2, and charging companies $5 per acre for nominating parcels for the auction block, which today they can do for free. If adopted, those changes would address the current problem of companies locking up land that might be more valuable for wildlife than for energy production, says Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. That could boost efforts to save the sagebrush ecosystem, which the fast-declining Greater Sage-Grouse and hundreds of others species rely on, and which has been under strain from oil and gas development. “These reforms are a huge, huge deal,” Weiss says. “To see these in a bill that appears to be headed toward passage—we’re not popping any champagne yet, but it’s certainly encouraging.”

If the bill makes it past roadblocks and becomes law, the work will have only just begun. There will be opportunities for individuals, organizations, and companies to get involved at the state and local levels, since once the federal funding comes down these will be tangible energy and conservation projects that need to be built across the country—and correctly, with the greatest benefits and the fewest negative impacts on the ground.

“As always we need our members to be a voice for birds and communities in all of these decisions, and also recognize that we’re all in this together,” Rose says. “This is a really big deal. There’s a lot here that we should be excited about. But we have a lot of work ahead of us to get it done.”

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