The Inflation Reduction Act: A Mixed Bag

By Adam Arnold, Environmental Counsel

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is undeniably the most substantial piece of climate legislation in US history. But is this a back-handed compliment, given the dearth of other substantial legislation on the world’s most pressing crisis?

The bill is receiving praise and criticism, and both are justified. It provides for a minimum corporate tax, but also gives away future rights to drill, build pipelines, and invest in counter-productive, long-term fossil fuel infrastructure. It provides tax incentives for green investment such as for purchasing electric vehicles but makes no assurance that those vehicles will not be receiving their power from dirty-energy powerplants, and provisions for electric bicycles and public transportation were eliminated in deference to automobiles.

It does not create a Civilian Climate Corps but does provide billions of dollars to address climate impacts. It invests in developing renewable energy, but also provides tax breaks for building nuclear plants. In sum, it is a mixed bag, the success or failure of which will come down to three factors: implementation, accountability, and whether future legislation expands or contracts the IRA’s ambitions.

Implementation and Accountability

The success of any law lies in its implementation, and implementing the IRA will certainly impact greenhouse gas emissions – potentially decreasing emissions by 40% by 2030. While some declare the IRA to represent a crucial step forward, environmental defenders argue that those impacts are outweighed by the giveaways to the fossil fuel industry – at exactly the time when the industry should be facing justice for its decades of pollution and deception. Thus, implementation is at odds with accountability.

However, the IRA is itself in part an accountability bill. It provides a measure of accountability by funding the offsetting of climate impacts (as well as in other areas, such as taxing corporations and creating a ceiling for prescription drug prices). Such measures can start to hold industries accountable for historic profiteering and shirking of responsibility by depriving them of profits.

But the IRA’s nuclear power provisions pose additional accountability problems. There are those across the political spectrum who see nuclear power as beneficial or necessary both for providing reliable energy and for combatting climate change. But accountability is especially challenging in the nuclear arena, as is well documented historically.

The recent Netflix series “Meltdown,” about the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, features Government Accountability Project and its client Rick Parks. The docuseries illustrates that sound science and strong safety protocols may not be enough to prevent disaster if those in charge lack public responsibility.

The issue is worrisome enough in any industry – including the fossil fuel industry, where, for example, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to have serious impacts on public and environmental health. In the nuclear industry, where a major accident would result in horrific health and environmental impacts for generations, a failure of accountability could render the most airtight safety measures inadequate. While relevant technology has improved greatly since the events of “Meltdown,” avarice and secrecy remain commonplace in corporate circles. Factor in how existing nuclear plants predate many advances and are nearing (or have passed) the end of their planned lifespans, and that an attack or natural disaster can take place even where human error is avoided, it is clear the nuclear industry’s accountability problem should not be ignored. The IRA’s planned investment in developing nuclear capacity may be its most problematic provision, particularly as, unlike other environmental provisions, it is not starkly partisan.

The Future

In conjunction with other, existing laws including those protecting whistleblowers, undermining the benefits of the IRA may come down to the public’s choice to elect more pro-fossil-fuel politicians – who can alter the legislation at its source – or more politicians devoted to environmental protection and accountability. The scrapping of the IRA’s environmental provisions through future laws or reconciliation bills may be the biggest threat to the law’s success, while future laws that expand these provisions offer the greatest hope of overcoming the global climate crisis – or at least the contribution of the US to the crisis. In that sense, accountability must ultimately come from the public.

That the IRA alone will not resolve the global climate crisis has never been in question. It is, at best, a significant step forward. But following a history of inaction – or action that directly fuels the crisis – this significance should not be understated.