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Ski industry figures dissect how Congress may move forward despite a divided Senate

 by Allen Best

The time of scrubbing federal government websites of “climate change” has ended. Joe Biden made addressing climate change one of the key pillars of his campaign for president. Even with a divided Senate, major legislation accelerating actions to suppress greenhouse gas emissions will likely advance given the growing gravity of the crisis and a handful of senators who have shown they’re willing to buck Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“It’s really quite exciting,” says ski area executive Jim MacInnes, chief executive of Michigan’s Crystal Mountain and a high-level student of how to modernize the U.S. electrical grid to allow deeper displacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy. “There are so many great things that can happen.”

Biden can do much with his executive powers. He can appoint personnel to head agencies that have an interest in advancing the energy transition, instead of slowing it down. A useful indicator of his commitment was the fact that the transition team for each department, including transportation and agriculture, has a climate change expert.

Recommitting the United States to the Paris Agreement was a given. More important may be recreation of the Clean Power Plan that was scuttled by the Trump administration. A revised plan could be created to avoid legal challenges. The goal would be to create a federal standard for utilities to decarbonize electrical generation

Even using the purchasing power of the federal government can be an important agent for accelerating the shift to non-carbon energy systems.

Grid modernization will get attention. It simply must. Electricity produced by intermittent renewables must be moved around the country more efficiently as utilities seek to shed coal and natural gas generation. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory about how to achieve this was suppressed by the Trump administration. MacInnes says Biden understands the need for improved transmission that overcomes barriers.

“The secret sauce is the grid,” says MacInnes. By moving electrons around to take advantage of geographic and time diversity, far deeper penetration of renewables can occur and fossil fuel plants can be retired more rapidly.

For a deep dive into what Biden can do with transmission, see the David Roberts deeper dive from this week at Voltz.

Speaking in November, when the outcome of the Georgia election was still in doubt, Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association, said Biden’s climate agenda might be approved in separate pieces instead of a sweeping package

A distinct shift has occurred in just the last two years that she and others from the outdoor industries have detected when lobbying Republicans on Capitol Hill. Climate change is being taken more seriously. The 2020 wildfires in the West and the mounting threat of hurricanes in the Southeast can only have sharpened the acceptance of the need to take action.

Republican moderates may have outsized influence. Think of Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins. “They are going to have more power and influence because of the razor thin margin in the Senate,” says Link. “I see those voices becoming louder, and I think they are willing to speak to compromise.”

An infrastructure bill will be likely, and that infrastructure could well have a significant green component. To get legislation moved, some compromises might be needed. For example, carbon capture and sequestration received billions of investment dollars during both the Bush and Obama administration, but has not become cost competitive. It might get billions more to get buy-in from fossil-fuel states to move forward on other items.

Not any snow to be seen in this January photo from a Western ski area in 2018. Photo/Allen Best

“There are ways we can protect our environment without punishing our economy,” he told the New York Times in November. “Free market innovation, to government taxation of heavy-handed regulations is the best way to deal with climate change.”

This suggests that carbon pricing, even if the tax is returned to the public in the form of a so-called “dividend,” remains a long-shot. The common ground might instead be incentives to fill in the gaps of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and hence accelerate the demand. one exception is a carbon tax applied to imports. Applying rates to level the playing field with China could draw support from conservatives.

Brian Fairbank has been in the renewable energy business, even setting up a wind turbine atop his ski areas in Massachusetts. This work of reducing carbon will be necessary to “make it easier for our grandkids to live on this planet,” he says. Even so, he hopes for caution as Democrats move forward. He wants to see fossil fuels eased out of the picture, not flung.

From Aspen, Auden Schendler sees the ingredients for strong action on climate change because of the need and bipartisan support for stimulus.

“It makes sense to spend that money on clean energy infrastructure because the right knows the fossil fuel system is going away and the jobs are in clean tech and infrastructure,” he says. “It makes bipartisan sense to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies—and those industries are weaker than ever, because they are losing money and no longer hold the power they used to. “

If Trump remains a shadow over the nation, he has lost his direct power. That can yield the coalition of Democrats and some Republicans to move the needle significantly.

This story was written mid-November and published by Ski Area Management in January. It has been updated slightly.

Allen Best
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