What Can Biden Accomplish on Climate?

January 22, 2021

Dana Nuccitelli in Yale Climate Connections:

With its day-one start to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, the incoming administration will also need to undo scores of Trump environmental regulatory rule-makings and rollbacks. Some of those steps could involve painstaking years-long processes of developing and proposing new rules and then submitting them for public comment prior to adopting final rules. Court challenges also would likely delay those actions in a number of cases.

But a major workaround involves the Congressional Review Act (CRA), reviewed in depth in this recent Yale Climate Connections post by Jan Ellen Spiegel.

One key CRA target for incoming Democrats will be the so-called ‘transparency rule’ – AKA “secret science” rule – finalized January 5, 15 days before the Biden/Harris inauguration. The concept, first proposed by the tobacco industry in the 1990s, requires that EPA give more weight to studies for which data are fully public than to those including confidential data. Many key studies underpinning some of the most important clean air and water regulations have relied on individual subjects’ confidential medical data not disclosed in the rulemaking. Critics fear the rule as adopted under the Trump EPA would weaken EPA’s ability to create new protections from harmful air pollutants.

Another potential CRA target is a new rule requiring that EPA cost-benefit analyses exclude what are called the “co-benefits” of incidentally reducing other pollutants. For example, an EPA regulation designed to curb mercury emissions would accelerate the phase-out of coal power plants, which in turn would reduce the emissions of many other harmful pollutants released by burning coal. The new rule, finalized in December 2020, would not allow EPA to include the potentially considerable health and economic co-benefits resulting from the reduction of other pollutants in a cost-benefit analysis of a proposed regulation; that restriction would make it much more difficult for the EPA to justify new pollutant regulations despite their potential net benefits to public health and the economy.

With the Executive branch having to undo or revise Trump administration rules, Congress will face a full and tight schedule for legislating on major climate change matters. Assuming the filibuster remains intact, significant legislation generally will require 60 votes (including at least nine Republicans) to pass the evenly split Senate.

But there lies an important exception – budget reconciliation.

The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 established the budget reconciliation process, allowing for expedited consideration of certain tax and spending legislation without an option for a Senate filibuster. In 2017, congressional Republicans used the reconciliation process to pass a large tax cut bill, and Democrats used it in 2010 to pass the Affordable Care Act. There’s one catch: Congress can use the reconciliation process for only one spending and/or revenue bill per year, with a target date of April 15th to have the reconciliation bill ready for Senate floor consideration.

To qualify for inclusion in the budget reconciliation process, a bill must meet two main criteria. First, it must have 51 Senate votes (potentially including Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker) and a simple majority in the House, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. Second, under what’s known as “the Byrd Rule,” the Senate Parliamentarian must conclude that the bill primarily involves budget issues. Lacking that affirmative conclusion, the Congressional majority must vote to overrule the judgment in order to include it.

When it comes to climate change, a carbon tax or fee is the broadest policy that likely would fit the reconciliation rules. Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – a strong climate advocate who sits on both the Senate Finance and Budget Committees, both key to reconciliation and taxation bills – recently argued that carbon pricing would be an ideal candidate for the budget reconciliation process. But nothing is certain, given concerns that West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, generally seen as the most conservative Senate Democrat, brought a halt to Senate action on the carbon cap and trade bill in a 2010 campaign ad.

So strong party-line votes are always a possibility on major climate change bills. But they’re not necessarily a given: Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Susan Collins of Maine each are considered potentially open to legislation on a carbon price.

About a dozen carbon tax bills were introduced in the last session of Congress. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, supported by the non-profit Citizens’ Climate Lobby, garnered by far the most support, with 86 cosponsors in the House, all but Democrats. In the Senate, that same bill was co-sponsored by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake just before he retired in 2018.

Many climate advocates on and off Capitol Hill – including some in positions of influence in the Biden administration giving mixed messages – have written-off prospects for carbon pricing soon becoming law. But it could yet emerge as an option for inclusion in budget reconciliation if it’s judged to meet the Byrd Rule: Carbon pricing continues to have the support of most Democrats and some Republicans.

Other climate advocates, however, have shifted their focus away from carbon pricing toward a combination of standards, investment, and environmental justice. Investments in clean technologies, infrastructure, and research will likely be a major component of a reconciliation bill; Those would be consistent with the Byrd Rule and could garner substantial support. A reconciliation bill could also create a federal green bank to invest in clean energy infrastructure. On the environmental justice side, President Biden has pledged that nearly half of clean energy investments will be directed toward poor and minority communities that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution.

A national clean energy standard (President Biden has proposed aiming for 100% clean electricity by 2035) would be more challenging to fit into reconciliation. Some experts, like Environmental Defense Fund economist Nathaniel Keohane, are skeptical that standards could meet the Byrd Rule given that they are generally more regulatory than budgetary in nature. However, a group of policy experts has proposed five ways in which a national clean energy standard could be given a significant budgetary component: for example, by creating a federal program to sell clean energy credits to electric utilities, along the lines of some approaches in previous measures included in past reconciliation packages.

It’s by no means a slam dunk, or as all-encompassing as a carbon price that could be applied to every sector of the economy. But it’s plausible that a majority in the Senate could support a national clean energy standard and that, if designed carefully to fit a proverbial square peg into a round hole, the Senate Parliamentarian could conclude that it satisfies the Byrd Rule.

As with carbon pricing, Manchin has voiced concerns about an ambitious clean energy standard, and he will be closely watched in the split Senate. In the end, regardless of what Manchin does, it’s conceivable that Republicans like Collins, Murkowski and Romney could instead provide deciding votes that determine which key climate bills are included in a budget reconciliation package in or even after Biden’s first 100 days.

Houston Chronicle:

WASHINGTON — In a shift, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday it would support a “market-based” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adding momentum to increasing calls for a tax on carbon emissions.

“We believe that durable climate policy must be made by Congress, and that it should encourage innovation and investment to ensure significant emissions reductions,” the chamber’s statement on climate change now reads. “U.S. climate policy should recognize the urgent need for action, while maintaining the national and international competitiveness of U.S. industry and ensuring consistency with free enterprise and free trade principles.”

The statement comes the day before President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office, amid wider appeals from U.S. corporations for a federal carbon tax that would apply to emissions from all industries.

Last year the Climate Leadership Council, which includes companies such as Exxon Mobil, JPMorgan Chase and AT&T, pitched a carbon tax plan to Republicans and Democrats in Congress that would create a $40-per-ton tax on all carbon emissions.

6 Responses to “What Can Biden Accomplish on Climate?”

  1. Joe Biden can make a start by appointing the right peole on the right places. This alone already will make a difference.

  2. indy222 Says:

    It’s a start…. but only a start. I don’t expect we’ll make a dramatic turn in our relentless trend. Growth Uber Alles continues to rule unchallenged for both Progressives, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Nazis…. etc.

    And the U.S. contributes only a dwindling 13% of global annual CO2 emissions.

    Have Cake / Eat Too. We’ll carry this moto right down to the bitter end.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      What do you mean by “growth”?
      What does “not growth” look like?
      Is increased efficiency growth?

      Enquiring minds want to know!

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Have Cake / Eat Too.”

    I could have sworn there has been an article or two on the idea that economic growth and solving AGW are not mutually exclusive concerns. We can have prosperity and solve AGW simultaneously.

    • indy222 Says:

      When you look at the findings of those who’s livelihood isn’t tied so directly to “Growth Uber Alles” policies, you find that no… we live on a finite planet with finite resources and finite ability to repair environmental damages, and that we have exceeded that renew-ability by a factor of almost 2x. We crossed the 1x line back in the early ’70’s. Converting the entire civilization’s energy infrastructure is a vast undertaking and will cost not just money, but energy.

      Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that GDP is a measure of true wealth. You can hire a million workers to dig holes, and hire another million workers to then fill them back up, and GDP will look great! Yet you have only impoverished the net well-being via inflation. I’m not saying hiring a million workers to transform to more renewable energy is 1-for-1 like the holes example, but it costs energy to convert our energy system, and that energy cost will be FF energy because that’s what we have. There’s also the accounting issue of failing to properly value the land that must be commandeered for vast solar PV and wind at civilization scales. Just ask the species who occupy it now.

      Growth WILL end, on a finite planet. Our only choice is how far will we push our dopamine-receptors for immediate gratification at the cost of yet steeper costs later? Overshoot-and-crash is what complex dynamical systems typically do, when their drivers (immediate gratification) are at odds with their long term good (true sustainability in a world rich with other life and ecosystems).

      As Nate Hagens points out – the flaw in the REMI report’s contention is that a $1 worth of carbon tax and a $1 worth of dividend to give away, are not the same. The $1 tax on carbon actually takes away the energy value of that $1, which is far more than $1, given the market pricing of carbon fuel (we price it just above the cost of producing it, and it’s a fantastically dense convenient fuel, climate poison though it is), while the $1 dividend is just $1, and given to the poorer people, gets translated more completely and directly into consumption (carbon emitting), vs if it’s given to the rich, who mostly plow it into asset price inflation and spend a much smaller % of their income. Reducing wealth inequality is itself an energy intense exercise. Pains me to say so, but that’s the facts.

      I’m not arguing in favor of increasing wealth inequality. I’m as disgusted by what I see as most of you are. I’m just here pointing about the climate consequences, after stripping away the cheery window dressing.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        I really think you need a chill pill. You sound absolutely manic on the topic, bogged down in all sorts of details and minutiae and just firehosing factoids.

        Can we please just focus on electrifying everything so we can stop burning fossil fuels? Because that will save civilization. Is that too much to ask? That one thing?

        Everybody and their grandfather has their pet complicating issue. For you, it is the famously nebulous term “sustainability”. For others it is population growth, or pollution or meat or Dog knows what. They are distractions.

        And sustainability is, sorry, the goofiest, most undefined, most vague quasi religionistic of the bunch. Some guy (Jesus) evidently wrote a book (A Bible) which claims we are living past our planets means – and somehow we have done so for half a century and this will be very bad indeed. And yet, running out of stuff is not the problem we face – it just ISN’T! AGW caused by fossil fuel CO2 is.

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