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Climate Policy in the Biden Era: It’s Morning in America

image credit: Senior Airman Amanda Bodony, DC. National Guard - Wikipedia

A cry for survival comes from the planet itself.

A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear

President Joseph R. Biden

  • Whether speaking philosophically of the meaning of democracy and what keeps it strong or specifically of what ails the nation, the differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump are stark. Nowhere are the differences more apparent than when they speak about the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming.

Following the election of Donald Trump, I wrote it was mourning in America. I knew with near certainty that climate policy in the Trump era would be nothing less than catastrophic. He did not disappoint.  

Following Joe Biden’s inauguration, it is also morning in America. I know with near certainty that climate policy in the Biden era will be nothing less than spectacular when compared not only to Trump but to President Obama and others who’ve held the position in the modern era.

Trump’s climate legacy is written in the rollback or substantial weakening of 200 or more environmental protections. Everything climate-related felt Trump’s blade from auto and truck fuel efficiencies and emissions to whether there’s any possible benefit—social or economic—attributable to slowing the rate of Earth’s warming or protecting the nation’s streams and rivers from chemical discharges.

Trump’s administration opened national lands to the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. It dismissed public input required by law even before it was given. According to the Center for American Progress, President Trump eliminated protections on 16 times more land than President Teddy Roosevelt protected as national parks and monuments. The totality of it all makes Trump the worst environmental president in history.

In his inaugural address, President Biden spoke of the nation’s four ailments—contagion, recession, racism, and climate change in his inaugural address. He spoke too of what would heal the country—unity—if not in thought, in a shared willingness to discuss solutions in a manner that ends this civil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. Voters  approved, but for how long? (Figure 1)

The President followed up his words with actions. Before his inauguration day was over, Biden:

  • Recommitted the US to the Paris climate accord;
  • Ordered federal agencies to assess over 100 regulations issued by the Trump administration consistent with the Executive Order: “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis;” and,
  • Halted construction on the Keystone XL pipeline by revoking the Trump administration permit allowing the pipeline to cross the Canada-US border. The pipeline is intended to connect Alberta tar sands operations with refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Indicated his intention to ask the Department of the Interior to review the Trump administration’s decision to downsize both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in southern Utah, which would have allowed potential fossil fuel development.
  • Suspended new oil and gas drilling permits on federal lands.
  • Asked government lawyers to hit the pause button on cases where environmental groups have challenged the previous administration.

Inaugural week also saw events that bode well for the environment. Ahead of the inauguration Janet Yellen, Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury, pledged during her confirmation hearing to establish a hub at the Department that would examine financial risks of climate change and related tax policies. She also indicated her intention to appoint a very senior official to lead climate efforts within the Department.

The President’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Transportation is the largest contributor of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to freeze federal targets for average fuel efficiencies at the current levels, rather than those the industry agreed to with the Obama administration as part of their 2009 bailout, electric vehicles are the future. The difference between the Trump and Obama targets is over 15 miles per gallon.

The Trump administration pulled California’s long-standing right to set a more stringent standard than that established by the federal government. It was only the second time the waiver was suspended. It was previously revoked in the closing days of the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration re-issued the waiver as one of its first acts.

Auto fuel efficiency standards and the electrification of autos and light trucks offer the Biden administration a chance to prove its commitment to bipartisan governance and willingness to work in partnership with industry. Building out the infrastructure for electric and alternative-fueled, e.g., hydrogen, vehicles will be a significant part of any infrastructure legislation.

In addition to Buttigieg, Biden nominated former Governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy and the current governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, as Secretary of Commerce. Both have strong environmental records. Granholm worked closely with Biden in 2008 to craft and implement the auto bailout.

The day before Biden was sworn into office, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia blocked the Trump administration’s replacement of Obama’s Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rule. The three-judge panel accused the Trump administration of a “fundamental misconstruction” of the country’s environmental laws and effectively sidelining the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to weaken climate change policies.

The appeals court did not reinstate the Obama era rule. It did, however, remand it to the Environmental Protection Agency for further action. A lot has changed since the Clean Power Plan (CPP) was issued. Although there is a hole where a regulatory regime once stood, the appellate court action has saved a step in what will be the years-long process of issuing a new regulatory scheme.

Much has changed since the days of the CPP. To meet Biden’s goals of a carbon-neutral power sector by 2035 and a net-zero nation by 2050, a significantly stronger plan will need to be put in place. Under the best circumstances, drafting, issuing, and finalizing a new rule could easily take four or more years.

The Administrative Procedures Act (APA) governs the issuance of any new rule. Among other of its provisions, the Act requires an agency to solicit public input. EPA received 4.3 million comments on the draft CPP and conducted hundreds of stakeholder meetings.

Complicating the issuance of a CPP 2.0 will be the legal challenges coming from red states and the fossil fuel industry. Arguments questioning EPA’s authority to issue the rule and its interpretation of the Clean Air Act will again be made.

Given the conservative textualist bent of the current Supreme Court, these arguments may prove convincing. The foundational case for EPA regulation of carbon dioxide, Massachusetts v EPA, was a 5 to 4 decision. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative jurist in whose footsteps the three Trump nominees appear to walk.

President Biden has staked out his intentions to be the best environmental president in history. In an era when personnel are policy, he has made his intentions to decarbonize the economy known—starting with the early appointment of John Kerry as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

The President has established the new White House Office Domestic Climate Policy. It will be directed by Gina McCarthy, the former EPA Administrator in the Obama administration. Other appointees to the Office include:

  • Maggie Thomas was a climate adviser on the presidential campaigns of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee. She will be the new office’s chief of staff.
  • Jahi Wise as senior adviser for climate policy and finance. He’s coming from his role as policy director for the Coalition for Green Capital.
  • Cecilia Martinez will be senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Biden sees climate change as both a problem and a solution. The way he attacks the other empirical challenges of our time—contagion, racism, and recession—is perhaps what will distinguish him from all of his predecessors. The nation will see climate policy addressed across the federal agency community.

Within hours of his inaugural speech, the gloves started coming off, and Republican and even some Democratic House and Senate members indicated their opposition to the Biden agenda—starting with his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 recovery plan. The plan includes items, e.g., raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and student debt forgiveness, they believe ancillary to pandemic relief efforts.

The current bill is the first of two recovery initiatives. The second is expected to focus on the longer-term goals of job creation, infrastructure, climate change, and racial equity.

The road ahead is littered with obstacles and barriers. Will Biden bracket Trump as the best environmental president in history? I think he will. But he’ll need help and not just from members of Congress.

So, readers, I say to you it is morning in America. Not the dark mourning trumpeted four years ago, but the morning of a bright new day. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to give meaning to all those surveys that show voters of all parties have heard Earth’s cry and been moved by it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

                                                     Amanda Gorman

 

Joel Stronberg's picture

Thank Joel for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 23, 2021

"Building out the infrastructure for electric and alternative-fueled, e.g., hydrogen, vehicles will be a significant part of any infrastructure legislation."

Joel, a popular misconception seems to be because electric vehicles (EVs) have no exhaust pipe, they generate no carbon emissions. But it's necessary to look at how that electricity is produced - after all, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is never destroyed, nor created. That electrical energy had to come from somewhere.

In practice, most electricity is generated by burning natural gas. And if we look at CO2 emitted on a "well-to-wheels" basis, EVs powered by gas-fired electricity are scarcely cleaner than modern, high-efficiency gasoline-powered vehicles.

What about hydrogen? Because 95% of hydrogen is made by steam-reforming natural gas, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are nothing more than cars powered by natural gas - but less efficiently, more costly, and emitting even more CO2.

So all roads lead back to fossil fuels, whether the retail customer is driving an EV, an FCV, or a regular, old, internal-combustion car. The world's largest industry got that way by being experts at marketing, by creating bright, shiny, objects to distract from the negative impacts of their fuels, then saying "Hey! Look over here!".

All roads but one, anyway. EVs powered by nuclear electricity, on a well-to-wheels basis, create no carbon emissions. None. Not Net-Zero, just Zero.

Though Biden has pledged to continue "to leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower," since his election that pledge has been muted. We can't allow his climate plan to amount to another switcheroo, another "Hey! Look over here!". With Indian Point [nuclear] Energy Center scheduled to be closed forever in April, the time is now for Biden to step up to the plate and find a way to keep New York's most productive source of zero-carbon energy open. The time is now, to prove to us the era of empty promises has passed.

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Jan 26, 2021

Bob, as always I appreciate your thoughts and taking the time write. I agree with what you're saying.

The California Energy Commission is out with new report on what's needed to meet the 2035 ban on internal-combustion engines. It's not pretty. The Commission is estimating the state will need a total of 1.5 million EV chargers by 2030. California now has something on the order 70K chargers.

This article is a preface to a series I'm working on. I'll be getting to the practicality and policy issues.

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 26, 2021

Joel, I assume that's 70K public charging stations, correct?

IMO the need for a vast public charging infrastructure is exaggerated. Most EV owners charge their cars overnight at home, and with battery packs now offering more than 200 miles of range public chargers are typically only needed on extended road trips.

In the last five years, I've probably used a public station three times.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 26, 2021

My charging habits more or less mirror yours, Bob, only charging in public typically when driving the 3ish hours to my parents place. But when I talk to people still resistant to EVs, the lack of charging available for those extended trips (at least readily available like gas stations are, as people don't like my answer of 'I plan my trip around the charger I'm going to stop at midway) is the most often cited reason they don't want to adopt EVs. So there's some degree of comfort that public EV chargers would bring that might help spur more market penetration, but if they're used that seldomly then they become not very economical-- it's a bit of a catch 22. I guess better education would be part of the solution, but man are some people stubborn about adapting to what driving an EV today would look like!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 27, 2021

You think it's bad today, Matt - my first electric car was one I built myself, in 2007. A converted 1997 Ford Aspire, it was powered by 13 golf cart batteries and a massive DC motor. The project took 1-1/2 years, but it actually worked - top speed was 70mph!

Registration wasn't easy. DMV kept insisting I had to get a smog check, and eventually I had to take them out to the parking lot and show them there was no exhaust pipe. Because there were no EVs at the time, the local NBC affiliate (KNBC) did a segment on it. There were still a few charging stations left over from the 1997 EV1, with spiders crawling around inside when I lifted the latch to plug in, but the electricity was free.

While working on it I heard, "Electric cars? Never. They'll never see the light of day," more times than I can remember. I started to make believers by letting others drive it, though. Acceleration was off the charts (when I floored it, the wattmeter briefly read half a million watts of power).

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Jan 28, 2021

Bob,

You'll see a more complete accounting in the next article but here's a taste of it.

The California Energy Commission estimates the Golden State would need 1.5 million charging stations by 2030. The current count for California is around 70,000 stations. The report was just released in the last few days.

The total “plugs” in the nation is estimated at 84,000. It should be noted that 25% of the nation’s is proprietary to Teslas.

If you think there's something suspect or that needs caveat pass it along.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 25, 2021

Following Joe Biden’s inauguration, it is also morning in America. I know with near certainty that climate policy in the Biden era will be nothing less than spectacular when compared not only to Trump but to President Obama and others who’ve held the position in the modern era.

It's great to see the goalposts being moved in the right direction-- reasonably it should be the fact that each Administration moving forward should have the opportunity to be the best, most aggressive, and most successful in the climate fight. And I guess it's hard to really have morning without a dark night preceding it-- but here's hoping that this morning extends beyond Biden's administration and beyond until actually coming together to solve these challenges

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