President Joe Biden’s first year in office, which began with the launch of the most ambitious climate action plan of any administration, ended with its derailment due to harsh political reality.
Up against a Senate that gives outsized power to members from sparsely populated states who are allied with the fossil fuel industry, Biden wasn’t able to get his $1.7 trillion Build Back Better legislation through Congress in 2021.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) argued that the energy transition that the bill sought to spur was “at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow.” Despite ample evidence to refute Manchin’s claims—including that the Texas power crisis was caused by renewable energy—the bottom line is that Biden and other supporters of Build Back Better will need to dramatically alter the legislation to win the votes of all 50 Senate Democrats. As the Democrats lose their grip on Congress in the 2022 elections, the clock will ticking.
Although environmental groups for the most part are continuing their push for Build Back Better, many activists and Biden’s own team are focusing on what the president can do without new legislation from Congress.
“Using executive authority—and boldly—may be the only way that Biden will get anything done, as long as Manchin (and, perhaps, [Sen.] Kyrsten Sinema [D-Ariz.]) block effective legislative action, alongside a solid phalanx of fifty Republicans,” wrote Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, in The New Yorker.
There are indications that the courts could block Biden’s executive actions, particularly on large items like clean energy. But from the start, Biden has talked about mobilizing an “all-of-government approach” to fight the climate crisis. Here are some examples from his administration that have begun to implement climate policies, but they have not received the same attention as the fight against climate change on Capitol Hill. Climate activists believe that Biden could have done more in nearly all cases.
Stop Fossil-Fueled External Aid
The interim guidance issued by the Biden administration in late 2021 restricts U.S. support for fossil fuels abroad. This is part of an executive order Biden signed one week after he took office. Although the guidance was not made public, Inside Climate News obtained a cable from the State Department that summarized it. It stated that government agencies would no longer finance, or otherwise support fossil fuel projects that don’t capture their own emissions, except in limited circumstances.
“The goal of the policy,” the cable said, “is to ensure that the vast majority of U.S. international energy engagements promote clean energy, advance innovative technologies, boost U.S. cleantech competitiveness, and support net-zero transitions, except in rare cases where there are compelling national security, geostrategic, or development/energy access benefits and no viable lower carbon alternatives accomplish the same goals.”
According to the document, all coal projects that fail to fully capture or abate their emissions are exempted from the guidance. This includes all projects involving oil-and-gas and rarer projects.
Many environmentalists cheered the news. The United States has spent billions of dollars supporting fossil fuel projects in developing countries in recent years. These projects, according to advocates, are inconsistent with global climate targets and could burden nations with costly infrastructure that is likely to be obsolete during a transition away fossil fuels.
In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said the new policy “will reorient tens of billions of dollars of public finance and trillions of private finance towards low carbon priorities.” The spokesperson added that the clean energy transition “won’t happen overnight,” and that “in some cases, engagement on a carbon-intensive energy project may still be necessary to protect national security or advance development goals, and no viable low-carbon alternative exists.”
Friends of the Earth U.S. international finance program manager Kate DeAngelis said that she is concerned about the interpretation of these exceptions. Her organization examined the cable from the state department and found that the exemptions for energy access and national security could have applied to many of fossil fuel projects that the federal government has funded in recent decades, including the oil and gas fields in Iraq, and the liquified petroleum gas export terminals of Mozambique.
The cable also listed talking points for State Department staff, including one that said, “As long as there is demand for fossil energy products, technologies, and services in global markets, the U.S. government will not stand in the way of U.S. companies that are ready and able to meet those needs.”
Pointing to the comments, DeAngelis said, “I am just very hesitant to get too excited about this.”
Building and buying better
Biden signed an executive order on Dec. 9 directing the nation’s single biggest energy consumer, employer and landowner to get on track to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
That means getting the federal government to transition its 600,000 cars and trucks to electric vehicles, to move its 300,000 buildings to carbon-free energy and to institute a “Buy Clean” policy for the $650 billion in goods and services it purchases each year. Biden’s goal is not to reduce direct emissions, but to create new demand for clean technologies.
“With the federal government as an early customer, American businesses and workers can shift faster,” said Josh Freed, senior vice president of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way, a centrist think tank. “China and other global competitors have already seen the advantages of these types of strategic investments and are realizing the benefits.”
Progressives argue that Biden’s order doesn’t go far or fast enough. Agency purchases and activities can be exempted from the ban for national security or combat readiness purposes. The Biden administration has made it clear that it will continue to lease federal land for oil-and-gas drilling, regardless of the order.
“President Biden has said all along that he wants the entire U.S. economy to decarbonize by 2050; realistically, that’s only possible if the U.S. government decarbonizes well before then,” said Deirdre Shelly, campaign director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement. “And even then, it’s near impossible to get to that goal if the White House refuses to stop fossil fuel extraction on public lands.”
Biden will have to fight for his plan to decarbonize federal procurement agencies and procurement if Republicans win control of Congress. They may also limit spending. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, called the executive order “outrageous and disgraceful” and an attack on American energy workers.
Efficiency in a new light
On Dec. 6, the Biden administration took a first step toward reversing Trump era rollbacks on lighting efficiency standards that advocacy groups say are costing U.S. consumers $300 million in higher electricity bills every month.
The proposal would require that new consumer bulbs produce at least 45 lumens per watt—an efficiency rate that is achievable by the LED bulbs currently on the market, and which was supposed to be the industry standard by the start of 2020 under a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. But Trump disdained energy-efficient lighting as costly, and said it made him “look orange.” As a result, about 30 percent of the light bulbs sold nationally still are incandescent or halogen bulbs that generate more heat than light per unit of energy. While the bulbs may be cheaper in the short-term, consumers will pay more for energy that does not make their homes brighter over the long-term.
According to the Biden administration, a return of efficient lighting standards will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 222 millions metric tons over 30 years and save U.S. consumers $2.9 billion annually.
Environmental advocates are concerned that the Biden Administration is not moving quickly enough to reverse the rollbacks of the Trump administration’s appliance efficiency rollbacks. They also noted that the lighting industry is looking for more time to meet new standards and sell its stockpiled inventory.
“The manufacturers have already received a couple extra years beyond Congress’s deadline to sell bulbs that have a short lifespan and waste a lot of energy,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. “Any extra time it takes and compliance flexibility [the Biden administration] gives come at the expense of consumers and the climate.”
A team to lead on environmental justice
Earthea Nance is an engineer and associate professor at Texas Southern University. She has been working for over two decades on problems faced by communities of colour that are at high risk of environmental hazards.
Now, Nance will spearhead the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts in Texas and surrounding states as the Biden administration’s appointee to lead EPA Region 6. She was one the three candidates that more then 30 environmental organizations endorsed earlier in the year for the important role of directing federal policies in five states and 66 tribes.
Nance participated in community-based research during Hurricane Katrina as well as the Deepwater Horizon oil spillage. She also served on Hurricane Harvey’s Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. Her predecessor in the Trump administration, Ken McQueen, brought a much different resume, as a former oil and gas industry executive who once said that climate change was “just part of the history of the world we live in.”
Nance’s appointment was one of several recent moves by the Biden administration to fill the EPA Regional Administrator posts, which do not require Senate confirmation. The spots were previously held by long-serving civil servants on an interim basis.
Biden moved ahead of Trump in filling his appointments rate in mid-December but he is still slower than Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush when it comes to putting their governing team in place, according the Partnership for Public Service. Biden’s nominees were being held up by Republican senators until a deal was reached just before the holiday recess. The president has also been subject to criticism from progressives in his party regarding some of his choices.
Biden decided in November to nominate Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to another four-year term, citing the need for “stability and independence” at a time of economic uncertainty. But two of the most ardent climate action advocates in the Senate, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) had opposed Powell for not using the Fed’s authority to combat climate change by testing for climate-related risks in bank portfolios, as European central bankers have begun to do. Although Powell has enough bipartisan support to be confirmed in the Senate, his hearings in January likely will touch on the Fed’s role in addressing climate change.
The Power of the Transportation Purse -String
Historians agree with President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the construction of the federal highway system under his direction transformed America into a country whose development model was centered around the automobile.
The Biden administration now has the chance to oversee the largest cash infusion into U.S. transportation system since the 1950s. This is thanks to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that he was able push through Congress in November with bipartisan support.
After the bill was passed, climate activists began to focus on what more could be done. They hoped for a $1.7 trillion Build Back Better spending plan to fund the investments necessary to decarbonize electric energy and transition the country to clean energy. But with the future of the bigger package in doubt, Biden’s team is focusing on what it can achieve on climate and environmental justice with the money that Congress already has approved.
The most important piece is the $126 million in new spending for the next five years, which will be managed by Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary. A Reuters analysis revealed that the bill increases his discretionary spending power by four-fold.
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The former mayor of South Bend made it clear that the money would not only be used to fix bridges or make other long-deferred road improvements, but also to remove interstate and overpasses which have been dividing neighborhoods. His “Reconnecting Communities” program aims to rectify damage done by highways that were built through minority neighborhoods around the country by making them more walkable and liveable for residents.
Buttigieg also will oversee the beginning of build-out of Biden’s promised network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, as well as the largest investment in U.S. passenger rail since the founding of Amtrak.
Climate activists and community activists believe that the infrastructure spending is insufficient to bring about the fundamental economic transformation that Biden has promised. But for now, the administration is treating it as an important down payment on the more comprehensive climate policy it is seeking to build, through a political system designed to favor incremental change.
Source: Inside Climate News