Biden Adds Bite to Climate Policy

January 27, 2021

New York Times:

As President Biden prepares on Wednesday to open an ambitious effort to confront climate change, powerful and surprising forces are arrayed at his back.

Automakers are coming to accept that much higher fuel economy standards are their future; large oil and gas companies have said some curbs on greenhouse pollution lifted by former President Donald J. Trump should be reimposed; shareholders are demanding corporations acknowledge and prepare for a warmer, more volatile future, and a youth movement is driving the Democratic Party to go big to confront the issue.

But what may well stand in the president’s way is political intransigence from senators from fossil-fuel states in both parties. An evenly divided Senate has given enormous power to any single senator, and one in particular, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who will lead the Senate Energy Committee and who came to the Senate as a defender of his state’s coal industry.

Without a doubt, signals from the planet itself are lending urgency to the cause. Last year was the hottest year on record, capping the hottest decade on record. Already, scientists say the irreversible effects of climate change have started to sweep across the globe, from record wildfires in California and Australia to rising sea levels, widespread droughts and stronger storms.

Mr. Biden has already staffed his government with more people concerned with climate change than any other president before him. On his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change.

But during the campaign, he tried to walk a delicate line on fracking for natural gas, saying he would stop it on public lands but not on private property, where most of it takes place.

A suite of executive actions planned for Wednesday does include a halt to new oil and gas leases on federal lands and in federal waters, a move that is certain to rile industry. But that would not stop fossil fuel drilling. As of 2019, more than 26 million acres of United States land were already leased to oil and gas companies, and last year the Trump administration, in a rush to exploit natural resources hidden beneath publicly owned lands and waters, leased tens of thousands more.

If the administration honors those contracts, millions of publicly owned acres could be opened to fossil fuel extraction in the coming decade.

The administration needs to do “much, much more,” said Randi Spivak, who leads the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Also on Wednesday Mr. Biden is expected to elevate climate change as a national security issue, directing intelligence agencies to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on climate security, and telling the secretary of defense to do a climate risk analysis of the Pentagon’s facilities and installations.

He will create a civilian “climate corps” to mobilize people to work in conservation; create a task force to assemble a governmentwide action plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and create several new commissions and positions within the government focused on environmental justice and environmentally friendly job creation.

The real action will come when Mr. Biden moves forward with plans to reinstate and strengthen Obama-era regulations, repealed by the Trump administration, on the three largest sources of planet-warming greenhouse emissions: vehicles, power plants and methane leaks from oil and gas drilling wells.

It may take up to two years to put the new rules in place, and even then, without new legislation from Congress, a future administration could once again simply undo them.

Legislation with broad scope will be extremely difficult. Many of the same obstacles that blocked President Barack Obama a decade ago remain. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, will very likely oppose policies that could hurt the coal industry in his state, Kentucky.

So will Senator Manchin, who campaigned for his seat with a television advertisement that featured him using a hunting rifle to shoot a climate change bill that Mr. Obama had hoped to pass. In the decade since, he has proudly broken with his party on policies to curb the use of coal.

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