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"I" Biden. What Does It Mean for Climate Policy?

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Joel Stronberg's picture
President The JBS Group

Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney with over 40 years of experience in federal and state energy, environmental and sustainability issues. He is the founder and principal of The JBS...

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  • Sep 8, 2021 9:54 pm GMT
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Koan: a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and force them to gain sudden intuitive enlightenment.

Had someone asked me a year ago what leadership characteristics Donald Trump and Joe Biden would share as president, I would have been at a complete loss to think of even one—other than old, like me.

Perhaps not as pure an example of a koan as the sound of one hand clapping, the Trump/Biden question has assisted me to abandon dependence on reason and gain at least something like sudden enlightenment. I’m unsure whether the greater truth(s) I’ve discovered is about the two men, the office of president, or myself. I expect it’s a jumble of all three.

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No matter your measure, these have not been good weeks for President Biden. The most recent opinion polls[i] peg his approval slipping to around 43 percent with a disapproval rating of 51 percent. It is the first time that his unfavorable rating has ended on top.

Approval numbers measure voter feelings of the moment. In a fast-paced world with social media, those feelings can—and often do—turn on the proverbial dime. However, the numbers beg the question—what are the chances President Biden will do a double-reverse and once again end up on top? More to the point, what will his failing to do so mean for national climate policy over the next several months?

Biden, like any president, is having to face intractable issues. Today those range from the close of a twenty-year war to tens of thousands of immigrants escaping unspeakable harms knocking on the nation’s doors.

Problems including a large portion of the population politicizing proven medical treatments in defense against a pandemic. Issues like climate change that Biden, himself, has called the number one issue facing humanity.

Are today’s presidential problems any worse than those faced by presidents before him? I think everyone can agree that being “Leader of the Free World” is no easy task. To perform it well requires a willingness to confront current realities—no matter how overwhelming they may seem at the time.

Throughout these past weeks, the most worrisome reports on President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, the pandemic 2.0, and the economy are those from unnamed inside sources not authorized to comment. Yet, they have.

What they’re “not reporting” is that Biden exhibits a stubbornness that frightens his staff from approaching him with the most current information. Information he needs to make a reasoned decision about incredibly complex matters.

"He is firmly rooted in his beliefs, giving him a stubborn streak and even a temper on occasion, those around him say."

Amie Parnes and Hanna Trudo write that rather than admitting to the reality of the situation, Biden used his national address following the end of the Afghanistan war to double even triple down on how US troops were withdrawn from the country and the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. (Emphasis added) It’s a troubling observation and reminiscent of how Trump was reported to respond to such issues.

Saying something often enough or loud enough doesn’t make it true. Reality is reality. Although it can certainly be changed, it first needs to be recognized, or actions may have little impact, or worse—have untoward and unfortunate consequences.

It’s fair to say that a president’s voter approval ratings have an impact on the chances of his proposed policies getting through Congress and onto his desk for signature. Executive orders get you only as far as the next president who holds opposing views. It is as true of climate issues as it is of healthcare and voting rights.

Voter polls are barometers of job performance. Love them or hate them, presidents should heed them.

Members of Congress are inveterate poll watchers. A very popular president is likely to have the political swag to keep members of his own party in line and those of the opposing camp nervous—an unpopular chief executive not so much.

President Biden, unlike former president Trump, has shown himself a willing listener. A listener who, upon hearing something he doesn’t like, doesn’t threaten to flay and primary them on their way out the door. In fact, one unnamed Biden advisor lamented that he absolutely listens to people; that’s why his briefings take forever.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump could not appear to be more different when it comes to management style. Trump listens to no one and expects—nay, forces—everyone to believe his lies. Biden listens to everyone, and yet no one. It’s as if the voices of staff and congressional leaders just become white noise.

Listening is active, not passive—or should be. If the listener has no intention of changing their mind in the presence of good information, why have the 135 policy and technology offices and 6,574 personnel that support the office of president?

There’s no “me” in team, as the coaches say. Neither is there an “I.”

Biden and the Democratic leaders in Congress have roughly 100 days to implement the President’s sweeping once-in-a-generation plans on infrastructure, climate change, healthcare, and a just economy. It’s a heavy lift, made heavier by razor-thin congressional majorities and intra-party conflicts.

Experience was one of the major reasons voters chose Biden over Trump. Experience, however, should not be allowed to trump present-day realities. Generals fight the previous war. Presidents must fight the current one.

I can relate to Biden’s feeling that he’s seen it all before and his urge to rely on his decades of experience to short-circuit the decisionmaking process. We think we’ve seen all this before, but we haven’t.

It is a new world, and yesterday’s experiences don’t necessarily translate to today’s realities. Politics is a contact sport, although it can be played civilly.  What the nation needs now is toughness, not a kindly uncle who reminisces about “back in the day.” C’mon, Mr. President, get in there and fight.

 

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Jake Maruschok's picture
Jake Maruschok on Sep 9, 2021

Hi Joel. I’m interested in your thoughts on the energy movement as a whole between the two administrations. The US has continuously reduced overall CO2 emissions and emissions per capita since the natural gas boom in 2005. This is primarily due to the transition from coal power to natural gas power and the nearly doubling of renewables output between 2005 and 2020. Under Trump, the US became a net energy exporter for the first time since the 1950s while advocating for more natural gas production domestically as well as extending federal income tax credits for renewables.

 

These trends also appear to be more bolstered by the private sector than by the government sector as many huge renewable initiatives within the US are being driven by major corporations, not the government. In your opinion, what could Biden do improve upon the energy market that was developed during the Trump administration? Many people bring up items such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. This has shown to increase utility costs in these states. While emissions did decrease in these states, they overwhelmingly became net importers of electricity, particularly from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia who primarily use coal and natural gas for power generation. However, due to the transition to natural gas, PA generated a huge amount of power more compared to the beginning of the RGGI but drastically reduced state emissions.

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Sep 11, 2021

 Hey, Jake,

Where to start? First, I think it’s fair to say that the trend is clean energy’s friend in terms of electric generation. According to EIA’s figures solar and wind have been the overwhelming source of new electricity generation this year as it had in 2020.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in its annual Renewable Capacity Statistics 2021 shows that renewable energy’s share of all new generating capacity rose considerably for the second year in a row. More than 80 per cent of all new electricity capacity added last year was renewable, with solar and wind accounting for 91 per cent of new renewables.

This is a genie unlikely ever to go back in the bottle. Your right on point about the private sector being the driving force to a low-carbon economy, which is a good and bad thing. Good that companies are being climate conscious and incorporating green energy investments into their production and operating plans.

It’s bad not because of what the companies are doing, but because of what the government isn’t doing. Government needs to be involved for any number of reasons. Things work best when government and industry work together.

Small electric consumers are great, but scale is critically important to the growth and price of clean energy alternatives and pricing of the power. The price of solar and wind power is still coming down through innovation. Efficiency of solar panels, for example, is going up. Storage is important to solar and wind, and here to innovation is bringing down the price.

With the promise of environmental responsibility many—possibly most—consumers are willing to pay some more for power. There are regional differences in who is willing to pay and who isn’t. Part of the differences are political—unfortunately.

The clearest example I can think of in terms of the partisan divides is Texas’ governor Greg Abbott. He blamed the winter outage on solar and wind—which was absurd. Renewable installations were capable of generating electric power far earlier than the fossil fueled plants.

According to Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT a lot of the generation that has gone offline…[has] been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system. Wind is the biggest alternative contributor in Texas.

Most of the reports at the time indicated that wind installations were more resilient than those running on fossil fuels. The problem last winter in Texas was mostly caused by a failure to winterize all power sources.

I find it difficult to believe that Abbott’s stance against wind and solar was anything other than a Trump-inspired partisan position. I think we’re seeing this again in the governor’s position on masks in Texas schools.

The Trump administration was hardly a friend of solar and wind. No need to go into some of the silly statements he made. In fact, Trump used his executive powers to institute some pretty tough tariffs on imported solar cells, including bifacial. His tariffs on steel and aluminum hurt solar and fossil fuel companies.

Notwithstanding higher tariffs, renewables still grew. I think it’s testament to the toughness of sector. A toughness, for example, that many shale companies were unable to exhibit because of the pandemics impact on pricing.

There are three things I would minimally like to see happen during the Biden administration:

  • A national clean electric standard;
  • Using the government’s purchasing power, e.g., electric cars and busses, to create a demand at scale and building out the appropriate infrastructures;
  • Grid improvements, including support for decentralization.

I think there’s a fourth and fifth thing to consider. I would like to see a phasing out of natural gas and support for nuclear.

Natural gas is a problem in my book. There are pipeline issues that involve the leakage of methane and the impacts it has on lands both sacred, i.e., tribal, and secular.

Sinking money in the gas sector is going to make it that much harder to turn towards cleaner alternatives. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels—but it is a fossil fuel.

As to nuclear, I don’t see being able to reduce emissions in the power sector to the level needed without nuclear. Today’s nuclear technology is vastly different than what was used to power electric plants 30 years ago.

I see I got on my soapbox again, so I’ll just end here. I hope something I said is directly responsive.

 

Jake Maruschok's picture
Jake Maruschok on Sep 13, 2021

Hi Joel. I completely agree when it comes to nuclear. In my eyes, there is no scenario where the US can have a 100% green electricity infrastructure without nuclear - large or developing micro - at least in my lifetime. 

 

Wind and solar are absolutely growing, with power output projected to equal natural gas output by around 2030 per the EIA. The issue right now, especially with solar, is that price increases can be as high as 16% for the short term - not clearly defined - in a new Bloomberg piece: Rising Solar Prices Threaten Paris Climate Goals, Analyst Says - Bloomberg. This is primarily due to resource price increases.

 

While Trump had disparaging comments regarding wind - in addition to others - he did not try to limit projects or reduce generation. His policy was simply "every energy technology" when it came to powering the United States and letting the market dictate where that would lead us. The market has obviously chosen lower emission technologies while still demanding - no pun intended - that on-demand power is readily available. With that being said, Texas should absolutely have winterized their turbines. However, many industries were shut down because they did not winterize their own operations within their walls. Is that necessarily the fault of the executive branch? I would say no, but each group in the ERCOT region bears some responsibility despite the once in a lifetime winter weather event.

 

For natural gas, no matter what group says what or how they feel about it, natural gas is absolutely necessary now and will be for at least the next 50-60 years. The shear amount of change that would be needed to remove natural gas from our collective daily lives is unimaginable. In my opinion, the items that are often so overlooked in 100% green scenarios are the ones that actually affect the average person. Who is going to grant replacements of all natural gas furnaces for those living in harsh winter areas? Who is going to grant replacements for the manufacturing sector where industries utilize heating applications within their processes that require natural gas - from experience, it could be millions of dollars for a single piece of equipment, now multiply that by thousands. How much MORE power generation is going to need to come online without demonizing nuclear in order to completely transition all of our natural gas usage to electric, and what weather, terrorism, national security items will need to be greatly locked-in to ensure consistent operations?

 

It's great to have goals, but without proper planning, it's all a dream.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 9, 2021

It's a great point about the intra-party conflicts, and that's something that seems to always be a heavy weight around the neck of the Democratic party that stifles potential action. I suppose with the Trump years you had that from the Republicans as well with those devoted to Trump and those who were reticent to accept his more aggressive and extreme postures/actions, so that's another similarity you might be able to add in. 

With regards to climate policy, I'm getting more pessimistic by the day that we'll see action to the extent of what was promised on the campaign trail before the midterm elections (the Infrastructure Bill can be looked at as the 'down payment' towards that, but no doubt well short of what was promised during 2020), and then as always all bets are off until we learn which way those elections go. 

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