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Senate Democrats are weighing game-changing climate legislation — they must approve it

A bill steering utilities toward greener energy may be the single most important legislation Congress can approve to slow the advance of climate change.

Senator Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, wants to use a carrot-and-stick approach to push utilities toward cleaner energy.Alex Wong/Getty

It has been an awful season of flood and fire.

Torrents of water have obliterated German villages and swept up families in Tennessee. Fast-moving flames have forced desperate Greeks to flee their homes by ferry. Californians have watched dumbfounded as entire communities have gone up in smoke.

And if the mounting destruction weren’t enough, an especially grim report from the world’s top climate scientists showing that the earth is heating up faster than previously thought has accentuated a message that should have registered long ago: It’s past time to act.

The most important audience for that message in the United States may be the 50 Democrats with a narrow hold on the Senate. They recently approved the broad outlines of a $3.5 trillion budget package that will only pass — if it passes at all — on a strict party-line vote. It is supposed to include a number of climate-related measures. But the single most important would provide financial incentives for electric utilities to switch to cleaner energy — and impose penalties on those that fail to act.

It’s known as the Clean Electricity Payment Program, a dull-sounding name for a game-changing policy. Cleaning up America’s electricity sector would eliminate up to a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. And if the country can convert more cars and heating systems to electricity — and then plug them into a greener grid — it could reduce emissions by 70 to 80 percent.


That’s big change from one of the biggest polluters on earth.

Championed by Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, the clean electricity proposal is inspired by policies already in effect in 30 states. Known broadly as “clean energy standards,” they require local utilities to purchase ever-increasing shares of clean power. The Smith legislation takes a different approach with the same end goal. Instead of imposing requirements on utilities, it would set up a system of financial rewards and penalties.


That’s key, because it gives the measure a viable path to passage in the Senate. A simple mandate to move to cleaner energy would be certain to run into a Republican-led filibuster, and Democrats wouldn’t be able to muster the 60 votes required to break it.

But legislation that doles out federal payments to utilities that meet clean energy goals and collects taxes from those that fall short is, at bottom, a budget bill, Smith argues. And under Senate rules, lawmakers can approve budgetary bills with a simple majority.

There’s no guarantee that the Senate parliamentarian will agree that the Clean Electricity Payments Program is a budget bill, subject only to a majority vote. But the measure gives Democrats a real shot at passing hugely consequential legislation. And they must take it.

As is the case with any significant bill in Washington these days, all roads lead through Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat and critical swing vote.

Manchin is from a coal state and he’s made it clear that he won’t abide any legislation that wipes out fossil fuels. He is also chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is charged with honing the details of any legislation pushing utilities toward cleaner power.

But the Smith proposal includes a provision that seems designed to win over Manchin and soothe other Democrats from fossil-fuel-producing states. It would base a utility’s clean energy goals on the amount of clean energy it’s already purchasing. If it is well below the national average, it wouldn’t have to race to catch up; similarly, a utility that already purchases a large amount of clean energy would be assigned relatively small annual increases.


Crucially, the proposal also defines clean power as any way of generating electricity that doesn’t emit greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. That broad, technology-neutral approach leaves utilities with plenty of options, including wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, and fossil fuel plants that capture their emissions; the right mix may differ between regions.

Regional variation is fine. The idea is to use the Clean Electricity Payment Program and other measures in the Democrats’ $3.5 billion budget package to get to a nationwide average of 80 percent clean energy by 2030.

Of course, reducing emissions from electricity generation alone won’t be enough to stop the fires and floods. But it would be an important step toward slowing their terrifying advance.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.