US President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to restore US leadership in the global fight against climate change, and followed up with a dizzying number of executive orders and lofty targets to slash emissions.
Yet nine months into his presidency, political, legal and economic obstacles have forced his administration to make several moves in support of fossil-fuel development at home and abroad, and raised questions about whether the Democrat is able to meet his commitments to clean energy.
Setbacks include a judge overturning the administration’s effort to block new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, forcing it to offer millions of new acres for drilling, and rising retail gas prices that have led the White House to publicly ask the global oil cartel, OPEC, to boost production.
Illustration: June Hsu
Most importantly, heavy political opposition has forced the administration to put its centerpiece climate proposals, which would help deliver an April pledge to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, into a budget reconciliation bill that has an uncertain future in the closely divided US Congress.
Democrats, who hope to pass the bill by the end of this month, are already talking about paring back investments and targets.
The stakes could not be higher. If Washington fails to deliver ahead of a climate summit in November in Glasgow, Scotland, other global powers, including the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter, China, would be reluctant to slash their own emissions.
“If that [climate-related legislation] went down before Glasgow, it would be a big mess for Biden and his administration,” said Bill Hare, director and CEO of the non-profit organization Climate Analytics.
A Biden administration official said that legal and economic realities have compelled certain administration moves, and touted Biden’s progress so far.
“We can do two things at once: achieve our climate goals while ensuring the energy transition is one that takes into account the interests of the middle class, who experience changes in energy prices very directly; and meet global energy needs as the economy recovers from the pandemic,” the official said, asking not to be named in order to be able to speak freely.
Biden’s mission is uniquely challenging in the US, where some voters and even some senior leaders in the opposition Republican party are skeptical that climate change has been caused by human activity.
Congress “is where the main theater of activity is taking place, and that is where I would pin the fate of the Biden administration’s climate legacy,” said Sam Ricketts, a co-founder of Evergreen Action, a group aiming to advance climate policy at the federal level.
HARD TO QUIT
Biden has re-engaged the US in the Paris international agreement to fight climate change, canceled the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline project from Canada, paused new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, and suspended drilling rights in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
His administration also aimed to decarbonize the power sector by 2035 — a key marker on the US path to its Paris agreement goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
In addition, the US and Europe have agreed to big voluntary cuts to methane emissions this decade, Reuters reported this week.
However, the administration has also backed lesser-known oil and gas infrastructure projects such as Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline from Canada, and sped up processing of oil and gas drilling permits. Government data show the administration has approved more than 2,600 drilling permits on onshore leases, a faster pace than during the Trump administration.
Last month, the White House also urged OPEC to raise production to help the global economy recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and keep retail pump prices in check for US motorists.
After a federal judge in Louisiana in June blocked Biden’s signature attempt to pause new leasing, the US Department of the Interior began plans to open millions of acres for oil and gas exploration, including about 80 million in the Gulf of Mexico to be auctioned later this year.
“What started as a set of ambitious campaign promises is quickly devolving into a disappointing milieu of fossil fuel development,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group opposed to oil and gas development.
ALL EYES ON CONGRESS
Climate Analytics’ Hare said much depends on the legislation making its way through Congress, which includes provisions to reduce carbon emissions from the power and transport sectors, tax credits for clean energy technologies, fees on methane releases from oil and gas, more investments in electric vehicle deployment, and a fund to funnel climate investments to low-income communities.
Many of the proposals were initially in a smaller infrastructure package, but have since been either weakened or wedged into the US$3.5 trillion budget bill that only requires a simple majority in the 100-member Senate rather than 60 votes as usual under the chamber’s rules.
Even that would require the backing of every single Democratic senator, a big task given that Joe Manchin, a moderate lawmaker from coal-producing West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said that they are opposed to voting for a bill of that size.
Neither Manchin nor Sinema’s offices responded to requests for comment.
Ahead of the Glasgow summit, international observers are not optimistic about the prospects.
“It is not too hard for China to be cynical about US climate action,” said Li Shuo (李碩), a senior climate policy officer at environmental group Greenpeace East Asia, who is in regular contact with government officials in China.
Even the US’s partners are worried, said Pete Betts, a former lead EU and UK climate negotiator who works at the think tank Chatham House.
“The international climate community has had to become expert over the years on US domestic politics and legislative processes, and the challenges of delivering are well understood by allies and competitors of the US alike,” he said.
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