WASHINGTON - American leaders have debated how to address climate change for decades, weighing scientific warnings about a warming planet against the economic and social ramifications of shifting the world from a fossil fuels, an energy source on which it has depended for centuries.
Unable to agree on a national plan to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, political leaders have settled for a hodgepodge of state and federal policies to promote carbon-free energy such as wind turbines and solar panels without penalizing oil, natural gas or coal.
Now, President-elect Joe Biden is promising change. With a hand-picked team of climate progressives and control over both houses of Congress, Biden will have the chance to move the nation away from fossil fuels to a degree that far exceeds the efforts of past presidents.
“As Houston and other places have been slammed by hurricanes and flooding storms, and the West is inundated with heat waves and wildfires, this has become reality to people in a way that wasn’t true 10 years ago,” said David Doninger, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I credit Barrack Obama, who up to this point did the most to protect the climate, but Biden is going to start from a higher platform.”
A long-time senator from Delaware with a reputation for working across the aisle, Biden was far from the first choice of most climate activists when he won the Democratic nomination for president last year.
Even after he put out a plan to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to expand clean energy and shift cars and trucks away from gasoline and diesel, questions arose whether he had the stomach to carry through on changes that would lead to job losses in places such as Texas, where hundreds of thousands are employed in the oil and gas sector.
But since winning election over President Donald Trump in November, Biden has assembled a cabinet that is universally on record that the U.S. economy needs to decarbonize — and quickly.
His team includes vocal climate voices from the Obama administration, with former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the Paris climate agreement, named Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, under whom the agency adopted tough greenhouse gas emissions standards, was appointed to the newly created position of National Climate Advisor.
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Heading the EPA will be Michael Reagan, an agency veteran under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations who spent eight years at the Environmental Defense Fund.
And Biden’s pick to head the Department of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., drew outrage from her own state’s oil and gas sector in November when, in response to a question about the new administration’s plan to halt oil and gas leasing on federal lands, said, “We don’t need drilling everywhere.”
“They’re progressives,” Scott Segal, a Washington energy attorney, said about Biden’s cabinet picks. “It’s hard to look at people like Gina McCarthy, John Kerry and Brenda Mallory (Biden’s pick to head the Council on Environmental Quality) and think they’re going to do anything but make environmental concerns front and center.”
With a razor thin majority in the Senate, the new administration will be limited under current rules from passing any major climate legislation without agreement from at least 10 Republican senators.
But the administration has plenty of other options to go after oil companies and other fossil fuel producers.
Biden can bypass Congress through executive orders, which presidents have increasingly used to make policy at times of a divided Congress. Such initiatives are expected to include not only Biden’s promise to halt federal oil and gas leasing and toughen car emissions standards, but also new financial rules that raise borrowing costs for companies extracting fossil fuels - for which support is growing among progressives.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is expected to take over the powerful Senate Banking and Housing Committee, said in a recent statement, “I will demand and push regulators, the administration, and the entire financial services industry to account for climate change's impact on the economy."
While a sweeping national climate bill is unlikely to pass. Democrats could use their majorities in Congress to direct federal spending toward clean energy goals such as modernizing the power grid and building electric vehicle charging stations.
“We expect Biden will direct all his cabinet members to come up with a plan to prioritize climate change, and the good thing with the majority in the Senate is having the funding to carry things out,” said Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs at the World Resources Institute. “We’ve never seen a president make climate a central tenet.”
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The question now is how quickly the new administration can get its low-carbon policies in place.
Biden is expected to go immediately after Trump-era regulations that loosened emissions restrictions on everything from power plants to oil and gas drilling operations. But as Trump found out when he took office, undoing the previous administration’s work is a lengthy and complicated process, involving stakeholder meetings, public comment periods and often litigation.
“There’s pending suits going back into the Obama administration that are still out there,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “There is clearly an enormous amount of left-wing pressure for the administration to use every tool it has to suppress fossil energy. But the reality is fossil energy is a critical part of the economy and will be for several decades, probably more than that.”
With oil companies and other industries opposing much of the new administration’s climate agenda, convincing Republicans to come along would appear a hard sell.
But Doninger, the NRDC director, said there are signs they that Biden and his allies could win over some centrist Republicans. Last month, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners.
And in recent years, Republicans in Congress have shifted from questioning mankind’s contribution to climate change, instead arguing for free market solutions over government mandates.
“We’ve been operating under the premise that at some point climate change becomes so real that even Republicans have to change their stance,” Doninger said. “Will we see a giant economy-wide climate bill? Probably not right away, but interesting things can be done.”