WASHINGTON – Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s decision to head the Department of Transportation, pledged to make climate change a top priority during his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.

However, this begs the question: how much can a transportation secretary realistically do to reduce emissions from America’s vast fleet of cars, trucks, and planes, all of which are monitored to varying degrees by the agency?

Transportation now accounts for a third of the country’s greenhouse gases every year. And it has been persistently difficult to clean up the sector as the vast majority of Americans continue to rely heavily on gasoline-powered vehicles to get around every day.

The federal agency has a number of powerful political levers that could be used to attempt to change this. One strategy might be to encourage state governments to rethink their road and transit systems and discourage the United States from becoming dependent on automobile traffic. Another option is to improve fuel efficiency standards for new cars and trucks, and promote cleaner electric vehicles.

But there are also important caveats: Mr Buttigieg would most likely have to convince lawmakers to pass important new laws if he is to significantly change the way the country moves. That could prove to be a political minefield.

Here’s a look at what the transportation department could do about climate policy.

Most of the Department of Roads and Public Transportation spending, which totaled around $ 47 billion last year, is determined by strict congressional formulas.

But not all.

The department also provides approximately $ 1 billion each year in competitive grants that states and cities can use to fund individual transportation projects. Mr Buttigieg would have considerable leeway to reshape these grant programs fairly quickly, experts said.

The Trump administration often gave grants for road projects that encouraged car travel, such as $ 34.6 million for a freeway interchange in support of a new National Football League facility in South Carolina. In contrast, a more climate-focused agency might announce that it is looking for proposals that offer alternatives to driving, such as: B. Bus or bicycle projects.

“It’s a small pot of money, but it sends a strong signal to states and cities,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of politics and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation. “And I would expect the new government to focus more on climate-friendly projects.”

Individual states – not the federal government – usually have the final say on how they spend billions of federal dollars each year building or repairing roads and public transportation.

Still, the transportation division could require states to track greenhouse gas emissions from their transportation systems and set targets for reducing those emissions over time. While states would not be required to cut their emissions, a little transparency could go a long way.

“Right now we don’t even measure greenhouse gas emissions and use them to make project decisions,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Liberal Center for American Progress, who recommended the policy change.

The department could also do more to help states and cities identify roads and bridges that could be damaged by sea level rise and other extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, DeGood said.

By law, the Transportation division works with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop federal fuel economy standards that will require new cars, SUVs, and pickups sold in the United States to use less gasoline over time.

The Obama administration used this authority to demand that automakers improve the efficiency of their fleets by an average of 5 percent per year for the 2021-2026 model years. The Trump administration weakened this to 1.5 percent per year. On Wednesday, Mr Biden called on the two agencies to reconsider this decision and propose new, presumably more ambitious rules by July.

The transportation division will make a significant contribution to these regulations, which could potentially serve to encourage automakers to sell cleaner electric vehicles. One challenge, however, is that more Americans are buying SUVs, which has resulted in fuel economy stagnating overall.

Mr. Biden has also set himself the goal of installing 500,000 new charging stations for electric vehicles over the next ten years. To achieve this daunting goal, Congress would most likely have to approve billions in new spending. However, the transportation department could help shape how and where these chargers are built.

America’s public transportation companies are in dire financial straits as the coronavirus outbreak has kept drivers out. Experts have warned that bus and metro systems could collapse without significant government aid and could make the country even more dependent on car and SUV pollution after the end of the pandemic.

That’s primarily a job for Congress: lawmakers approved $ 14 billion in transit aid last December, and Mr Biden proposed an additional $ 20 billion to get new laws to clean up.

But the transportation department will very likely be closely involved in helping the transit agencies get back on their feet.

“There is a lot the department can do to work with cities to find out how to make transit more reliable and to ensure services are delivered to communities that need it most,” said Ann Shikany, infrastructure expert with Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group.

Ultimately, experts say, it will be difficult to significantly reduce US vehicle emissions unless Congress steps in to renew federal transportation funding.

There is an opportunity: the current round of federal road spending will expire this year.

Legislators in both the House and the Senate have already proposed a number of reforms that could potentially reduce emissions from the transport sector. Ideas include topping up the total for local transport and electric vehicle infrastructure, encouraging cycling and walking, and imposing new climatic conditions on existing formulas for motorway spending.

Still, changes are likely to prove controversial, especially in a tightly divided Senate.

“When you start moving money, some states start to win and some states to lose,” said Lewis of the Eno Center for Transportation. “That means major reforms can face ongoing political struggle.”