Last year’s federal HFC phasedown plan, commonly known by its incarnation as the AIM Act, became law thanks to support from a coalition of business and environmental support. This year brought a new presidential administration and a new Congress, along with new proposals and a reminder that the familiar phrase is “political calculus” for a reason: It’s complicated.
That doesn’t mean nothing can get done. In early May, AHRI’s vice president of government affairs, Samantha Slater, hosted a bipartisan webinar panel to talk about the state of climate-related legislation and the factors in play.
The video call offered three takeaways. Immediately noticeable was the tradition of civility across party lines in discussing these matters.
Policymakers also repeated a willingness to look at opportunities for achievement on smaller objectives that may lie within larger, possibly more contentious proposals.
And finally, the “how” of the process may be at least as important as the “what” of a particular bill when it comes to meaningful legislation’s chances for success over the next couple of years.
Committees and Carbon
AHRI’s panelists were invited to offer a couple of comments on their current tasks and priorities before Slater engaged them with some prepared questions.
Brendan Larkin is deputy chief of staff for Rep. Paul Tonko, the Democratic chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. Larkin mentioned the CLEAN Future Act (H.R. 1512) off the bat, describing it as a “comprehensive proposal” within the committee’s purview to reduce emissions.
The bill targets a “national interim goal” to achieve a minimum of a 50% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by not later than 2030. It eyes a further goal of achieving a 100% clean economy by not later than 2050.
Larkin said that while a discussion draft of the bill circulated in the previous Congress in draft form, it is now in the middle of a series of hearings designed to get further into details and refine language in a way that can win stakeholder support.
That said, Larkin noted that his team is also working to reconcile that proposal with President Biden’s American Jobs plan. How or whether any sort of blended plan will develop remains uncertain.
He was followed by David Nemtzow, director of building energy technology in the Department of Energy’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Nemtzow is not a part of an administration but a civil servant, working on DOE priorities with an emphasis on energy efficiency. To that end, experts like Nemtzow are key contacts for HVAC industry representatives.
Nemtzow’s office has a wide but HVAC-relevant scope of work, including areas like refrigerants; thermal energy storage; building efficiency and integration with HVAC equipment; quality installation and workforce development; new construction technologies; and grid interactivity.
Richard Russell serves as Republican staff director for the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. He recalled how his team worked “hand in glove” with Democratic colleagues to get the AIM Act finished but emphasized there was more to the bill than the HFC phasedown.
Russell pointed to the Innovation for the Environment section and important components therein that he says reflect where committee Chairman Barrasso stands.
“He fundamentally believes that we need to use U.S. innovation to drive solutions and drive change in a way that isn’t going to hurt the consumer, the manufacturing base, or energy workers.”
The “Use It” part of the Innovation section deals with carbon capture and carbon utilization. Part of that, he said, involves CO2 pipelines. The strategy pumps captured CO2 down wells for oil recovery, “making uneconomic wells economic” and generating low-CO2 oil, he said.
Russell also called out a provision by Senator Carper for replacing older diesel engines and replacing them with new ones as particularly important.
Adam Tomlinson rounded out the panel as the Republican staff director for the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works (EPW), essentially representing ranking member Republican Senator Capito.
Tomlinson echoed Russell’s caveat of addressing climate change while “protecting energy workers.” He lauded recent progress in starting to implement the AIM Act and “will work to make sure it’s a front-burner issue and that the regulatory action remains faithful to the statute.”
Tomlinson called attention to a nuclear proposal to facilitate smaller and innovative nuclear reactor strategies, the 45Q tax credit to encourage carbon capture utilization, and what he described as “core infrastructure activities” where he thinks there is room for bipartisan progress.
Clean Future Act Prognosis
AHRI’s Slater circled back to the CLEAN Air Act to discuss its details and its chances to advance.
“We all sense that infrastructure is going to suck up all the oxygen in the room” on the Senate side, she said, wondering if the House might be able to tackle it.
Larkin indicated that co-sponsor and committee chair Rep. Pallone would be “happy to move whatever pieces [of the bill] that can be enacted this Congress.” A subset of pieces that could “move on their own,” he said, included investments for grid modernization and water infrastructure.
Slater pivoted to Russell about the EPW disposition toward this idea of smaller or partial efforts.
“I think it really depends on how we end up running legislation,” Russell replied. “I think there’s a lot of bipartisan interest on infrastructure, a ton on innovative ways of addressing both climate and general environmental issues.”
He expressed concern that an Endless Frontiers proposal currently circulating might serve to create redundant efforts on the research front, and he argued that progress toward and embrace of smaller, safer nuclear reactors will be a necessary part of a lower-carbon energy mix.
“Traditional energy isn’t going away,” Russell emphasized. “Things like natural gas, coal, and oil are going to continue to be used. So if you want to reduce emissions associated with those, you need more efficient power plants and carbon capture, along with CO2 utilization.”
As a caveat, he referenced that the AIM Act originally was proposed as an amendment on the floor without having gone through committee review. This left many issues to be resolved. The committee process subsequently “let us fix the bill,” he said, to generate something that will “stand the test of time,” but he warned against revisiting that approach.
“Right now,” he explained, “we seem to be in one of those strange times in Congress where the committees seem to be cut out of the process, and I think that’s a real shame. The hearings are where we can learn from stakeholder and others what is necessary to create legislation that is good.”
Russell made the case that issues like climate, where policy decisions can have such long-term ramifications, especially need buy-in on both sides of the aisle.
“I think there’s a lot that can be done on a bipartisan basis,” he assessed. “But we have to make sure it’s done on a bipartisan basis.”
How Do You Solve a Problem Like New England?
Looking elsewhere, Slater asked DOE’s Nemtzow for his perspective on whether renewable liquid fuels may be the best option for an area like New England where oil is still a widespread heating choice.
Nemtzow acknowledged the aggressive progress (in technology and adoption) for heat pumps in the region. He also mentioned that the DOE looks at renewable natural gas and green hydrogen (with a question there being how to get it to where it’s needed). If the hydrogen component mixed into natural gas is small enough, that does not require modifications, he said.
In the end, Nemtzow said that “from traditional efficiencies to heat pumps to cleaner fuels, I think New England is going to wind up relying on a whole bunch of solutions.”
Russell agreed with that assessment while making the case for natural gas. While environmental groups would presumably add other context or counters, Russell cited a Boston Globe piece that said it was “crazy” to have to import natural gas from Russia instead of allowing pipelines across neighboring states.
Russell expressed support for the various new ways to use hydrogen, and how the ability to use it in a mix “makes it very interesting for use in existing facilities.”
He reiterated that traditional fuels will not disappear from the energy equation, saying that learning to use them more effectively and efficiently should be the real objective.
This was the first of this year’s AHRI Spring Webinar series, with subsequent discussions throughout May to address industry-relevant state legislation prospects; a pandemic and post-pandemic economic review for U.S. and abroad; and the HVACR industry’s lessons, challenges, and opportunities resulting from the COVID era.