How John Podesta Is Thinking About the IRA’s Big Final Tax Credits

Source: By ROBINSON MEYER and EMILY PONTECORVO, Heatmap • Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2023

In an exclusive interview, the White House advisor tells Heatmap that rules around hydrogen, manufacturing, and aviation fuel are weeks away and offers a window into his thinking.

The rules governing virtually all of the remaining policies in President Joe Biden’s climate law — including some of its most important and generous provisions — will come out in the next several weeks, signaling a new era in the law’s implementation, a senior White House advisor told Heatmap in an exclusive interview.

Speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations climate conference in Dubai, the advisor John Podesta said that the Treasury Department will publish rules governing some of the law’s biggest remaining subsidies by the end of the year. The former White House chief of staff and veteran political strategist also offered a window into his thinking about the implementation of the policies, which he has been charged with overseeing since last year.

The upcoming subsidies include some of the most important tax credits in the law. They are aimed at boosting climate-friendly aviation fuel, low-carbon hydrogen, and new factories building EVs and other clean-energy equipment. Podesta said that guidance for all three tax credits will be published by the end of the year. When they are released, every active subsidy in the Inflation Reduction Act will be usable and open for business.

Podesta has spent much of the past year immersed in the tax code, the site of many of the law’s most sweeping policies. On Sunday, he walked Heatmap through his thought process behind some of the biggest unreleased rules.

He expressed particular worry about the rules governing “green hydrogen,” which is produced by using electricity to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen.

“This has been the most challenging piece of policy that we’ve had to contend with” while implementing the IRA, Podesta said.

Many energy scholars believe that hydrogen, which produces no climate pollution when burned, could potentially replace fossil fuels in many sectors. But the IRA’s tax credit is so generous — providing companies with up to $3 for every kilogram of hydrogen produced — that some experts have argued that exceptionally strong rules must govern it, so as to make sure it actually serves to reduce emissions.

Hydrogen “has the potential to pay enormous dividends in 2030 and 2040 in reducing emissions from the industrial sector, from heavy duty transportation, et cetera,” Podesta said. “But at the same time, not do it in a way that lacks environmental integrity.”

He described the White House’s work as trying to balance between two bad outcomes: On the one hand, it could stifle the production of green hydrogen so much that “blue hydrogen,” produced using natural gas and carbon capture technology, dominates; on the other, it could boost green hydrogen so much that it distorts electricity markets nationwide.

“We could kind of blow it in either direction, I think,” Podesta said. “We can either be in a context in which we’re not really driving deployment, and therefore driving innovation, particularly on the electrolyzer side, so that we end up kind of filling the gap with a lot of blue hydrogen rather than green hydrogen. On the other hand, if we go the other way, we sort of blow emissions on the grid.”

The big question confronting the Treasury Department is how to measure climate pollution produced from the electricity used to create green hydrogen. One sticking point is whether hydrogen producers will be allowed to buy power from existing zero-carbon power plants, like nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams. That could be a boon for Constellation Energy, the country’s largest owner of nuclear facilities.

But researchers at Princeton and MIT have argued that if hydrogen companies aren’t required to bring new clean energy resources onto the grid to account for the power that they’re using to make hydrogen, then they will inadvertently increase climate pollution. That is because if a nuclear reactor stops serving homes and businesses and starts powering hydrogen production, then natural gas and coal plants will likely produce electricity to fill the gap, at least in the near term.

“You could see a world where all of the U.S. nukes pivot to supplying electrolyzers and just print money that way,” Dan Esposito, a policy analyst at the think tank Energy Innovation, told Heatmap earlier this year. “There’s just a lot of layers to how bad this can get.”

But speaking in Dubai, Podesta appeared to reject some of these more extreme scenarios.

“I think a lot of the model runs just have assumptions that are very, very — you know,” Podesta said. “Like, all nuclear power plants are not going to stop sending power to the grid and start making hydrogen. That is not going to happen. I guarantee you that.”

“So you can have an upside estimate of what that means, but to what end?” he added. “It’s tricky, because the [hydrogen] industry essentially does not exist. So we’re making judgment calls about what we need to do to get the green side of the industry really going, in this decade.”

Podesta was more sanguine about the other two tax credits. “We’ve got a game plan on [the sustainable aviation fuel tax credit], and I think it’s going to be fine,” he said, although he added that it would require updating a key Department of Energy model that governs the policy.

“We’ll be able to both stimulate production but also create environmental integrity in that program,” he said.

That policy is expected in the middle of December. The last remaining tax credit, which will subsidize new factories in America to build clean-energy equipment, will be out next week, a Treasury Department spokesperson told Heatmap.

Once rules are written for those three programs, virtually all of the active subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act will be ready to use. The IRA contains another set of subsidies — “technology-neutral” tax credits that will boost zero-carbon power generation until the country hits certain decarbonization goals — that the Treasury Department has not yet written rules for. But that program will not go into effect until 2025.

Starting on January 1, a new era will begin in the law’s implementation, as the government moves to award the climate law’s more than $100 billion in grants, Podesta said. “It’s going from, ‘This money is available, please apply,’ to, ‘Here’s the money, go put it to work,’” Podesta said.

In the spring, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund — a new $27 billion in-house investment fund created at the Environmental Protection Agency — will begin distributing its funding, he added.

“I think that could be very, very powerful and important, not just from the perspective of reducing costs for consumers and reducing emissions, but in terms of the goal of deploying against the justice part of the president’s agenda,” he said. “That’s really where you can see the community impact happen.”