WASHINGTON — Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who began her political career with the Green Party and who has voiced alarm over the warming planet, wants to cut at least $100 billion from climate programs in major legislation pending on Capitol Hill, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Sinema is one of two centrist Democrats in the Senate whose votes are crucial to passing two bills that together would comprise President Biden’s legislative agenda: a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a separate $3.5 trillion budget bill.
Last month, Ms. Sinema told The Arizona Republic, “We know that a changing climate costs Arizonans. And right now, we have the opportunity to pass smart policies to address it — looking forward to that.” In her 2018 run for the Senate, Ms. Sinema was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters. And she has expressed an interest in using the spending bill to enact a tax or fee on carbon dioxide pollution, which experts say could be among the most effective ways to mitigate global warming.
But Ms. Sinema’s demand to cut spending on climate provisions in the budget bill could force Democrats to cut or shrink programs designed to help poor communities adapt to climate change as well as to help companies adjust as the economy transitions away from fossil fuels to clean energy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted in a letter to colleagues this week that the climate programs would remain. “The climate crisis is a health issue, jobs issue, national security issue and a moral issue to pass the planet on to future generations in a responsible way,” Ms. Pelosi wrote. “This challenge must be addressed with justice for vulnerable communities, who have been hit first and hardest by the climate crisis.”
A spokesman for Ms. Sinema, John LaBombard, forcefully denied that Ms. Sinema requested the cuts. “Neither Senator Sinema nor our office have requested or demanded such cuts, nor have we even heard of any such demands,” he wrote in an email.
The people familiar with her request, who asked to speak anonymously because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said that she had asked for a cut to the climate program as part of a larger effort by Democrats to hunt for ways to lower the price tag of the broader spending legislation. Mr. Biden had initially envisioned a spending package of about $3.5 trillion, but Democrats are now trying to cut that to $2 trillion, in order to win support from Ms. Sinema and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, without whose votes the measure will not pass.
As Democrats try to slice $1.5 trillion from the overall bill, party leaders have vowed to protect at least two major climate change programs, which together total about $450 billion.
The first, a $150 billion proposal known as the Clean Electricity Program, would reward electric utilities that switch from burning fossil fuels to wind, solar or nuclear power, and penalize companies that don’t. The second is a package of roughly $300 billion in tax incentives to increase the use of wind and solar power and electric vehicles.
Those two programs could lead to significant reductions in the nation’s climate-warming pollution and would very likely stand as the most important climate action taken by the United States, analysts said.
But to bring down the cost of the bill, and to appease Ms. Sinema, Democrats could still could cut or shrink up to another $200 billion from several other climate programs.
“Almost every climate program that’s not those two would be substantially reduced or cut entirely in that circumstance,” said John Coequyt, director of government affairs at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research organization that focuses on climate change policy.
Those could include a number of programs designed to help poor people adapt to the destructive impacts of climate change, as well as $30 billion for a “Green Bank” to help communities finance construction of solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations, and $30 billion to create a “Civilian Climate Corps” that would hire young adults to work in climate mitigation and adaptation, with half coming from communities of color.
Another possible contender for the chopping block could be a $10 billion program to help rural electric cooperatives, which supply electricity to over 40 million people in rural communities. The money would aim to ease the price spikes that those rural residents could see in their power bills as the cooperatives make the switch from buying coal-fired power to wind and solar. Other potential cuts could include a $13 billion program to build new electric vehicle charging stations — including $1 billion to ensure that those stations are built in lower-income areas.
“Absent programs like that, the economic transition to different energy sources will be less even and equitable,” Mr. Coequyt said. “There will be communities that can’t take advantage of the new technologies for a whole bunch of different reasons.”
Cutting assistance to local communities would also undermine popular support for a transition to a clean energy economy, experts say. “Some of the programs that are intended to reach into rural and low-income communities are really important to maintaining the political coalition for this,” said Dallas Burtraw, an analyst for Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan research organization focused on energy and environmental policy. “It could be both an economic and a political problem if those communities are left behind.”
Scientists and environmental activists in Arizona say those cuts would end up hurting Ms. Sinema’s constituents.
As one of the nation’s hottest and driest states, Arizona is already on the front lines of the extreme weather that scientists say is worsened by a warming planet. Arizona is gripped in a decades-long megadrought, with 95 percent of the state experiencing severe drought conditions. Since 2012, the state has endured five drought events that caused a total of $22.1 billion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This year alone about half a million acres of the state have been consumed by wildfires, and yet many communities were also flooded by monsoons. Across Arizona, there was a record 522 heat-related deaths in 2020, according to the state.
“Annual average temperatures in Arizona have already increased a couple of degrees due to climate change, which may not sound like much, but it has increased heat waves and droughts, it has lowered the snowpack which is essential to our water supply, and which flows in streams that are important to the health of wildlife, which is important to our ranchers and farmers,” said Gregg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona.
Arizona needs federal help to grapple with a hotter climate, he said. “We need the work force,” Mr. Garfin said. “We need the funding. Many communities in Arizona lack the budget or expertise to do this. It requires real money. And it’s super important for Arizona.”
Poor and minority communities, which are disproportionately harmed by climate change, must be included in any government plan, said Vianey Olivarria, a director of Chispa Arizona, the state branch of the League of Conservation Voters. “There is no way to have a climate action plan that does not have environmental justice,” she said.
Democrats at the forefront of pushing for climate action say none of the policies can be spared.
“We cannot slash climate funding in this package. That would go back on the promise to voters, to young people, to the American workers who don’t want to be left behind,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “We absolutely need a robust Civilian Climate Corps, which will inspire a new generation of young Americans. We need a robust green climate bank which will unleash for every dollar which is spent, seven to 10 dollars of private sector investment. That’s a very smart way of ensuring that every small city, small town housing authority, small business, can have access to the capital they need to make this transition.”