WASHINGTON – As President Biden prepares Wednesday to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change, powerful and surprising forces stand by his side.
Automakers will accept that much higher fuel economy standards are their future; Large oil and gas companies have said that some greenhouse gas pollution containments overturned by former President Donald J. Trump should be reintroduced. Shareholders are demanding that companies recognize and prepare for a warmer, more volatile future, and a youth movement is pushing the Democratic Party to face the problem.
What could stand in the way of the president, however, is the political intransigence of senators from fossil fuel states in both parties. An evenly divided Senate has given tremendous power to every single Senator, especially one, Joe Manchin III. From West Virginia, who will chair the Senate Energy Committee and joined the Senate as his state’s coal miner defender.
No doubt signals from the planet itself give urgency to the matter. Last year was the hottest year in existence and the hottest decade in existence. Scientists already say the irreversible effects of climate change are being felt around the world, from record fires in California and Australia to rising sea levels, widespread droughts and stronger storms.
“President Biden has identified climate change as mankind’s main problem,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “He understands all too well that passing this test will require nothing less than a full mobilization of the American government, business and society.”
Mr Biden has already filled 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 take a delicate line on fracking for natural gas, saying he would stop it on public land, but not on private land, where most of it takes place.
A number of executive moves slated for Wednesday include the suspension of new oil and gas leases in state and federal waters, a move that is sure to anger the industry. But that wouldn’t stop fossil fuel drilling. As of 2019, more than 26 million acres of land in the United States were leased to oil and gas companies, and last year the Trump administration leased tens of thousands more in a rush to exploit the natural resources hidden beneath public land and bodies of water.
If the administration honors these contracts, millions of publicly owned acres could be opened up for fossil fuel extraction in the next decade.
The administration needs to do “much, much more,” said Randi Spivak, who heads the public land program at the Center for Biodiversity.
Also on Wednesday, Mr Biden is expected to bring up climate change as a national security issue, instruct intelligence agencies to produce a national intelligence agency assessment of climate security, and ask the Secretary of Defense to conduct a climate risk assessment of the Pentagon’s facilities.
He will found a civilian “climate corps” to mobilize people to work in nature conservation. Create a task force to develop a government-wide action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and creation of several new commissions and positions within government focused on environmental justice and green job creation.
The real action will come when Mr Biden drives forward plans to reinstate and strengthen the Trump administration-repealed Obama-era regulations on the three largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions to warm the planet: vehicles, power plants, and methane leaks from oil and gas wells .
It can take up to two years for the new rules to be in place, and even then a future government could simply reverse them without new laws from Congress.
Legislation with a wide scope will be extremely difficult. Many of the obstacles that blocked President Barack Obama a decade ago are still there. Republican Senate Chairman Mitch McConnell will most likely oppose policies that could harm the coal industry in his state of Kentucky.
This also applies to Senator Manchin, who was fighting for his seat with a television advertisement in which he shot down a bill on climate change that Mr Obama had hoped to pass with a hunting rifle. For the past decade, he and his party have proudly violated policies aimed at curbing the use of coal.
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“I have repeatedly emphasized the need for innovation, not elimination,” Senator Manchin said in a statement. “I am ready to work with the administration on advanced technologies and climate solutions to reduce emissions while maintaining our energy independence.”
Senator Manchin is also against ending filibuster in the Senate. But to change the rules of the Senate, democratic leaders would need any democratic vote. Without Senator Manchin, Mr. Biden would need significant Republican support.
“The executive branch has a lot of leeway to restore and go beyond what Obama did,” said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University.
But he added, “If you want something that sticks, you have to go through Congress.”
For Mr. Biden’s benefit, some companies have turned to friends of enemies.
Mr Biden’s team is already drafting new national standards for car pollution – based on an agreement between the state of California and Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo – that would require cars to average 51 miles per gallon of gas by 2026. Current Trump rules only require fuel consumption of around 40 miles per gallon over the same period.
And just two weeks after Mr Biden’s election victory, General Motors signaled that it too was ready to work on the new government.
“President-elect Biden recently said, ‘I believe we can own the 21st century auto market again by switching to electric vehicles.’ We at General Motors could no longer come to an agreement, ”wrote Mary Barra, CEO of GM, in a letter to those responsible for some of the country’s largest environmental groups.
If enacted, a fuel economy rule modeled on the California system could instantly become the country’s single largest greenhouse gas reduction policy.
Mr Biden’s team is also devising plans to reintroduce the Obama-era rules on methane, a planet-warming gas that is over 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide, although it dissolves faster. Last summer, when Mr. Trump rolled back those rules, oil giants called BP and Exxon instead to tighten them.
The new president has also found widespread support for re-entering the Paris Agreement, a global deal under which the United States pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Re-entering the agreement means meeting commitments. Not only does the United States have to meet its current target (it is now roughly halfway there), it is expected to make new and more ambitious commitments to reduce emissions by 2030 soon.
ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron all made statements of support for Mr. Biden’s decision to rejoin. So did the United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, which once backed an exposed study claiming the Paris Agreement would result in millions of job losses.
“While policy is being developed by the administration and members of Congress, we want a seat at the table,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Chamber of Commerce.
Other energy executives said Congressional measures on climate change are long overdue, and many are pushing for a tax on oil, gas and carbon emissions to make global warming less economical.
“A clear price signal that says ‘Hey, it’s cheaper for you to buy an electric car than another big truck’ is exactly what we want, not someone in the government deciding to ban something” he told Thad Hill, the executive director of Calpine, a Texas-based power generation company that also supports the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The wafer-thin majority of Democrats are no guarantee of action. In the Senate, the Democrats have 10 votes less than the 60 votes required to break a filibuster that would almost certainly be accompanied by laws that would replace coal and oil with sources of electricity like wind, solar, and nuclear, which not heat the planet.
In a Monday night interview on MSNBC, New York City Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, admitted how difficult it will be to get a strong legislative response.
Instead, he asked Mr. Biden to declare climate change a “national emergency”.
“Then he can do many, many things under the emergency powers of the president that he shouldn’t have to go through – he could do that without legislation,” said Senator Schumer. “Now Trump has used this emergency to create a stupid wall that wasn’t an emergency. But if ever there was an emergency, the climate is one. “
Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, the largest coal-producing state in the country, replied, “Schumer wants the president to go alone and enact more penalties, increase energy bills and cut even more American jobs.”
Delaware Senator Thomas Carper, chairman of the environmental committee and one of Mr. Biden’s oldest friends, said he would do everything possible to include climate-friendly measures in larger legislation. Democrats hope a pandemic recovery bill will include hundreds of billions of dollars in green infrastructure, such as Mr Biden’s plans to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and 1.5 million energy-efficient homes and apartments.
Senator Carper also said he hopes to revive humble legislation that has historically been supported by both parties, such as extending tax breaks for renewable energy sources, helping the construction of new nuclear power plants, and improving energy efficiency in buildings.
“You can call it incrementalism,” said Mr. Carper. “But I call it progress.”
Christopher Flavelle contributed to the coverage.