President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Sees The End Of The Road

12:03 minutes

a man and a woman shake hands in an office of the white house
President Joe Biden meets with U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito to talk about passing an infrastructure bill on Wednesday, June 2, 2021 in the Oval Office of the White House. Credit: Official White House/Photo by Adam Schultz/Flickr/Public Domain

President Biden’s huge infrastructure bill is finally seeing the end of the road. The nearly 2,000 page bill covers infrastructure improvements—everything from roads to broadband. The package also includes funding for projects that would build up the country’s climate change resilience. Some climate change experts say the budget doesn’t go far enough and other analysis says the bill would not pay for itself. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, walks us through the bill, new fuel economy rules for electric vehicles, a Tesla lithium-ion battery fire, and more science news from the week.    

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about the latest COVID-19 stories. We’ll check in on the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline project in Northern Minnesota. But first, President Biden’s huge infrastructure bill is finally nearing the end of the road.

It’s over 2,000 pages, covers wide-ranging infrastructure improvements, from roads to broadband. The package also includes funding for projects that would build up the country’s climate change resilience. Some climate change experts say the budget doesn’t go far enough. And other analysis says the bill would not pay for itself. Here to unpack the highlights on this and other stories is Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox based out of Washington, DC. Welcome back, Omar

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s talk about the infrastructure bill first proposed in March. How is it different from what Biden laid out five months ago? What has changed?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the big top-line thing is that it’s much smaller than what Joe Biden actually wanted. When he presented his American Jobs Plan, that rounded out to about $2.1 trillion. And this bipartisan bill that’s being worked on by 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans– this is valued at about $1 trillion, with only $550 billion in new spending.

So there were a lot of concessions made. And some of those concessions were on things that were related to climate change, particularly on mitigating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, although it does contain a fair number of provisions for dealing with the impacts of climate change, like adaptation. And so it has about $500 million to protect homes against wildfires, about $11.6 billion for the US Army Corps of Engineers to improve flood control, and about $73 billion for power infrastructure. But there were a lot of cuts on the things that would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

IRA FLATOW: So there was basically a compromise. Biden did not get everything he wanted here.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. Biden wanted about $363 billion in tax credits for clean energy. That would boost the deployment of wind and solar power. And he wanted about $157 billion for electric vehicles and infrastructure. And that was shrunk to about $15 billion in this version of the bill. And there was also $556 billion in research and development funding that was also removed.

But there is one key provision that does reduce greenhouse gas emissions that’s still here. And that’s the provision to deal with orphan oil and gas wells. These are wells that have been abandoned that are still leaking methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. And so by closing them off, they can actually get some outsized reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. And so there is still some money there to do that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. They don’t talk about this in general when we hear about some important little things that are in the bill. But that certainly is one of them.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And all hope isn’t lost here. Democrats are taking a two-track approach. This is the bill that’s going to pass with, ideally, bipartisan support. But there’s also the reconciliation bill that Democrats can pass with just Democratic votes. And the thinking is that a lot of what was cut out of the bipartisan bill will end up in the reconciliation bill.

But there are some Democrats that are starting to get a little bit wary about the size of that bill. And there’s a question of whether the Senate parliamentarian will approve all the provisions in it. So that’s not entirely a sure thing either.

And politically, a lot of environmental advocates are concerned that this may be the best opportunity we have in the Biden administration to get these things done. Because after this, then we’ll be entering the midterm election season, and a lot of other things could come up. And so they’re saying that this is an opportunity we need to seize right now to do as much as possible.

IRA FLATOW: Another announcement coming from the Biden administration is a new rule for electric cars. This seems to be a big step.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And cars and light-duty trucks are about 60% of the share of transportation greenhouse gas emissions. And this week, President Biden said that he wants half of all cars and trucks in the US sold to be electric or hybrid electric vehicles.

And so that’s a pretty significant goal post. This is a target. It’s not necessarily binding. But it tells the automotive industry, but also battery suppliers and infrastructure developers, that the US really wants to invest in electric vehicles. And the idea is that these industries will take that as a signal and start running forward.

And in addition to that, they also announced new fuel economy rules that would undo some of the rollbacks that were done under the previous Trump administration. But the idea is between the two of these provisions, with both the fuel economy rules and a goalpost of electrification, that will give a significant boost to EVs going forward.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you just can’t make more EVs. You have to build the infrastructure to charge them, too.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. And you also have to build the demand for them. You also have to convince people to buy them. And that’s been one of the other challenges. The auto industry has not invested a lot of money in developing them and marketing them. Right now, about 2% of new cars sold in the US are electric.

So they need to do a much better sales job of trying to convince people to buy them and also need to pour a lot more money into research and development. And there are indications that they’re starting to do that. President Biden was joined by leaders from General Motors and Ford. And they were saying that they’re going to be pouring more money into coming up with better designs, more efficient batteries, and so on. And now they just have to convince Americans that these are just as good, if not better, than the cars they’re used to driving.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. A few weeks ago on the show, we talked about the future of batteries. And there was a recent fire at a big Tesla battery factory. Where was it, in Australia?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. This is a grid battery facility in Geelong, Australia. It caught fire this weekend. And it just this week was put out. It took about four days to contain the blaze and more than 150 firefighters.

And when they looked at it, they found out that this was just one battery unit inside a shipping container. So this is a 13-ton lithium-ion battery. But it’s part of a larger facility that can store about 450 megawatt hours of electricity from the grid. There’s 210 of these battery packs.

And so the concern here is, how do firefighters and other first responders deal with batteries? Batteries are not necessarily more dangerous than other types of energy storage if you compare them to things like fuel or other ways we condense energy into a small space. But when they catch fire like this, you can’t necessarily just use water. You have to use other kinds of firefighting techniques because these are electrical fires.

And so that’s going to be a challenge because this is a new technology. And a lot of fire departments around the world, as they’re seeing these grid-scale battery systems being installed in their jurisdictions, are going to have to come up with ways to how to deal with them in case they deal with these emergencies.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because batteries are certainly going to be part of our future. And the old firefighting methods are not working.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s one of the things that we don’t always appreciate when we incorporate new technology. We’ve dealt with gasoline fires and pipeline ruptures and things like that and power lines being dropped. And those risks are generally grandfathered in.

But when you talk about these new kinds of technologies having these new kinds of problems, it’s not necessarily, again, that they’re worse. It’s just that they’re different. And oftentimes people can be caught off guard.

IRA FLATOW: Does Tesla and does the industry also view this as a setback for Tesla or just something as a bump in the road toward the future?

UMAIR IRFAN: I think this is a bump in the road. It’s not the first battery fire we’ve seen at a grid-scale energy storage facility. We’ve seen them in other parts of the world before. There was one in Hawaii a few years ago. And firefighters learned from that. And also, the managers and so forth– they developed better emergency responses and precautions to deal with these kinds of issues.

But it’s certainly going to be a learning experience. And the fact that this didn’t really blow up into something huge and catastrophic shows that this is something that can be weathered, that this is some fault that could eventually be contained. And I do anticipate that this facility will be back up and running soon.

IRA FLATOW: Your next story looks at an important upcoming environmental report from the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s not out yet. But do we know what the focus will be?

UMAIR IRFAN: We do. This is the next installment of the big reports that the IPCC puts out on climate change. These reports don’t necessarily present new information, but they gather all the best available climate science. And they basically evaluate how strong the evidence is. And they tend to be very comprehensive. A lot of scientists and also policymakers take these reports very seriously.

This next installment looks at what we know about the physical sciences of climate change. And there have been some changes since the last report, which came out in about 2014. There’s a lot more emphasis this time around on things like attribution.

There’s this cliche around extreme weather events, for instance, that you can’t attribute any individual event to climate change or tease out the elements of climate change in those events. But scientists say, actually, these days, you can. You can look at things like severe flooding or heat waves and tease out just how much more likely they were due to climate change or how much sea level rise, because of climate change, worsened flooding and disasters like that. So that’s one big thing.

And another big thing is also they’re talking about the future estimates of warming. They’ve now narrowed those estimates quite a bit. Essentially, some of the more grim scenarios, some of the more worst-case scenarios– they’ve narrowed them down. But also, they’ve also narrowed down some of the best-case scenarios, some of the more optimistic outcomes with warming.

And so we have a better sense of what the future holds as average temperatures continue to rise. But there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty there as well.

IRA FLATOW: And in related other climate news, there’s kind of scary news. There’s been a change in a big ocean current. And if that’s true, that has great implications.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. This is what’s known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, the AMOC. It’s part of the Gulf Stream. And this is sort of like a giant conveyor belt in the ocean. It moves heat and salty water from the Gulf of Mexico towards Europe. And it has influence on weather patterns all over the world, like monsoon rains over Asia and things like that.

And there was a study that just came out this week that looked at some of the key indicators of this AMOC. And they found that they’re slowing down. This circulation pattern is slowing. And the concern is once it reaches a tipping point, it could collapse entirely. And this would have global consequences for weather, for the climate, and for just how we understand the world as we know it.

IRA FLATOW: And what is the cause of this circulation changing?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, this circulation– it happens with a very delicate gradient. There needs to be a subtle change in temperature across the ocean, but also a subtle change in salinity. And as ice is melting in the Arctic, that’s putting more cold water into the northern latitudes. And also, as sea surface temperatures are rising, that’s throwing off that balancing act and is causing that conveyor to slow down. And so the concern is that as that disruption grows, we will see more of a collapse as time goes on.

IRA FLATOW: And we’ve heard over the years, when they talk about this happening, it would change possibly the whole weather of Europe because it’s bringing warm water to Europe that would no longer be there.

UMAIR IRFAN: You know, that’s right. If you look at a map, you look at places like Southern Spain and Southern France. And they’re further north than cities like New York and Boston. And somehow, they still have warmer, sunnier climates in those cities.

And that’s because of this mechanism. It’s transporting a lot of warm weather from the equatorial regions there. And so the things that we kind of take for granted about the climate in Europe, particularly in Western and Southern Europe, that could change pretty dramatically if this circulation pattern were to halt entirely.

IRA FLATOW: Well, always good to have you, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Have a good weekend.


IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is a staff writer at Vox based out of Washington, DC.

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