The Caldor Fire burns homes along a ridge on Aug. 30, 2021, near South Lake Tahoe, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill isn’t just about roads and bridges — it also spends billions to address wildfire, drought, flooding and other effects from climate change, Interior Department officials say.
The $1.2 trillion measure, which is awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature after the House cleared it last week, includes pay raises for wildland firefighters, funding for water storage and treatment facilities and resilience efforts for Native American tribes. The White House said Biden will sign the measure Monday.
However, advocates say a separate $1.75 trillion spending measure the White House calls the Build Back Better plan will do more to battle the root causes of climate change. That plan awaits a vote in the U.S. House and likely major changes in the Senate.
Liz Klein, a senior counselor to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, said the department was not looking at the bipartisan infrastructure bill’s dollar amount, but its potential to help people dealing with flooding, drought, storm surges and more resulting from a changing climate.
“We are really laser-focused right now on what this means for the day-to-day lives of people who are facing the ongoing fallout from a worsening climate catastrophe,” she said on a Wednesday call with reporters.
The bill includes $1.5 billion for improving resilience to wildfires, including funds to restore forests after fires.
The measure would also raise wildland firefighter pay and require Interior to transition at least 1,000 seasonal firefighters to full-time workers. They would focus on reducing hazardous fuels that help wildfires spread faster, Klein said.
“The tools that we’ve been provided in this infrastructure deal recognize that we need to have a year-round firefighting workforce,” Klein said.
The bill also includes $8.3 billion in water management and more to combat drought that is “gripping the West,” Tanya Trujillo, assistant Interior secretary for water and science, said.
“It makes one of the largest investments in drought resilience in the nation’s history,” Trujillo said. “There is an urgent need to minimize the impacts of drought and develop a long-term plan.”
Trujillo cited examples of low water levels in the Colorado River Basin in several Western states and the Klamath Basin in Oregon.
The bill will provide funding for authorized rural water management projects in Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, Trujillo said.
It includes $736 million for infrastructure on tribal lands through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an Interior agency.
It would provide $270 million for maintenance of BIA roads and $250 million for irrigation, dams and water sanitation facilities.
It would also provide $215 million for tribes to plan and build climate resilience and adaptation projects. A news release from the department said those projects would vary by tribe and location.
A down payment
Climate hawks and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have been less impressed with the infrastructure bill’s overall climate impact because it will also fund more road construction that leads to emissions from transportation.
Progressives are pushing to pass the larger $1.75 trillion social spending plan that includes provisions on emissions.
Adam Peltz, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, applauded the climate provisions —particularly related to oil and gas well cleanup—in the infrastructure bill but said the bigger spending plan would have greater climate impacts.
Democrats in Congress have tied the two measures together, with House progressives only voting for the physical infrastructure bill in return for moderate House Democrats’ pledge to support the broader bill.
“There’s a lot more in the Build Back Better bill and we see the two as companions,” Peltz said. “We really need both. The climate crisis is so enormous that we really need to be addressing it aggressively and that takes the combined effort of these two bills.”
Among the climate provisions in the infrastructure bill is $11.3 billion for abandoned mine reclamation projects to close mine shafts and restore water supplies damaged by mining.
Also included is $4.7 billion to plug so-called orphaned oil and gas wells that leak methane and pollute groundwater. Methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.
Companies that extract oil and gas are supposed to cap wells once they are no longer in use, but there are at least 80,000 documented uncapped wells across the country because the developer went out of business or the well stopped producing before regulations required it to be plugged.
“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal’s historic investments will help revitalize these local economies and support reclamation jobs, all while addressing environmental impacts from these legacy developments,” Haaland, a former U.S. House member from New Mexico, said in a statement.
The funding in the infrastructure bill provides a start to having federal and state regulators plug known orphan wells, but there are likely hundreds of thousands more uncapped wells that regulators are unaware of, Peltz said.
“It’s definitely a down payment on a larger problem,” Peltz said.
Federal money to cap wells could begin to flow “within months,” he said, with funding continuing through 2030.
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