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On Monday, fending off what threatened to be a crippling blow to growth in the rooftop solar energy industry, President Biden announced a set of executive actions intended to protect the industry. That — if it isn’t successfully challenged in court — may be a modest success in Biden’s effort to transition the U.S. economy into one that runs on clean energy. But such successes have been fewer than what environmentalists had hoped for.
Despite assuming office with what activists describe as the most ambitious climate change agenda in history, Biden has experienced a series of setbacks that threaten to leave him with little progress on the issue, showing just how hard contending with climate change can be in a chokepoint-filled federal system, such as that of the United States.
The president is facing backsliding on almost every front in his fight against climate change: His clean energy proposals are stuck in the Senate, surging oil and gas prices have even Democratic state governments cutting gasoline taxes, and the need to wean America’s European allies off Russian fossil fuels has led the administration to propose boosting gas exports. Also, a bill passed by the House of Representatives could get in the way of offshore wind energy expansion.
Meanwhile, the president’s broad power to regulate under existing laws is being constricted: One federal court ruling forced him to sell new fossil fuel leases on federal lands and waters; and the Supreme Court is on the verge of limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas causing global warming.
“It’s hard to be a glass-half-full kind of person at this moment,” Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Yahoo News.
Even Monday’s action, in which Biden delayed any potential tariff on solar panels imported from four Asian countries that dominate the U.S. market, was more of a defensive maneuver than a step forward from the status quo. A current Commerce Department investigation into whether China is circumventing U.S. tariffs on its solar panels via Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam was forcing solar installers to cancel orders because they feared being slapped with massive tariffs. Now they can get back to business. (Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act to develop the domestic solar manufacturing industry, a move that may help increase the rate of solar deployment further down the line.)
The rest of the year will be a crucial period in which Congress could pass climate action before Republicans probably take control of the body next year. After that, there will be no new legislation to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our moment is now and the window of opportunity is closing,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club.
Of all those wishes that Biden’s tenure would be transformative, perhaps none were as desperate as those of the climate change activists. Through decades of mounting evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is causing the planet to warm, the United States has taken virtually no steps to reverse the trend, though the last two Democratic presidents have tried. Former President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully proposed a tax on fossil fuel-based energy. During former President Barack Obama’s first term, a bill to cap carbon emissions passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate. Obama’s signature regulation of climate pollution, the Clean Power Plan, was gutted by his climate science-denying successor, Donald Trump.
But Biden campaigned in 2020 and assumed office the next year under different conditions than those that greeted Obama in 2009. Biden ran on a $2 trillion proposal to address climate change through investments in transitioning to clean energy, and he promised to stop selling new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters.
With the climate crisis rapidly worsening, the cost of renewable energy and electric vehicles dropping and youth-led activism pushing mainstream Democrats such as Biden to embrace a bolder agenda, there was the possibility that the federal government might take sufficient action to set the United States on the path to reaching net-zero emissions by midcentury. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that’s the benchmark that must be reached to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming and avert the worst possible effects of climate change.
Biden created two new climate-focused positions, appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special envoy on climate change and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as White House climate czar.
Biden set out to attack climate change on multiple fronts: legislatively, through Congress; administratively, through executive branch rule-making; and diplomatically, through negotiations with other countries.
His Build Back Better bill was designed to avoid the fate of cap and trade, which died in the Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives in the 2009-2010 Congress, because Republicans have taken to filibustering every piece of legislation, creating a de facto 60-vote supermajority threshold. Instead, Build Back Better would go through the budget reconciliation process so that it could pass with a simple majority. As a budget bill, it could contain only provisions that focus on taxes and spending rather than creating new regulatory powers; thus, the White House stuffed it with $555 billion over 10 years in subsidies for clean energy production, energy-efficient heat pump technology and electric vehicle deployment.
Last November, in a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Biden told the assembled world leaders — many of whom his administration was privately cajoling to make announcements of plans to end reliance on fossil fuels — that his domestic agenda would make the United States, the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases, the biggest player in the global team effort stop the climate crisis from worsening.
“My Build Back Better framework will make historic investments in clean energy, the most significant investment to deal with the climate crisis that any advanced nation [has] made ever,” Biden boasted. “We’re going to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by well over a gigaton by 2030, while making it more affordable for consumers to save on their own energy bills with tax credits for things like installing solar panels, weatherizing their homes.”
In order to build support among centrists who were reluctant to back Build Back Better, such as Democratic holdouts Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that included money for climate-friendly infrastructure like electric vehicle charging stations. But to win Republican votes, it also included billions of dollars for hydrogen made from fossil fuels and a $25 billion loan guarantee for a new liquefied natural gas facility in Alaska.
“If you couple it with the Build Back Better Act, there really are some synergies and it can have some relational climate benefits,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., an outspoken climate advocate, told Yahoo News in Glasgow last November. “But if it’s all we do, it’s not good; it’s probably negative on climate, on emissions.”
But Build Back Better, despite having been passed by the House of Representatives, remains stymied in the Senate, facing unified Republican opposition and the recalcitrance of Manchin and Sinema. Manchin has been trying to instead strike a bipartisan energy deal with Republicans. However, Axios reported last week that those talks are winding down without a deal. The question remains as to whether Manchin and Sinema will agree to a Democratic-only reconciliation package.
Risk of ‘monster failure’
Climate policy wonks are hopeful that Congress will pass climate legislation before Republicans likely gain control of the body in the midterm elections, but they admit that failure would be devastating.
“I’m super optimistic, believe it or not, that the bill formerly known as Build Back Better actually has a shot of moving in the near term,” Pierce told Yahoo News. “And that actually will advance a transformational set of investments.”
“Give Sen. Manchin credit for trying the bipartisan route, which is always his preference, and we’re going to hold hope that in the face of those talks petering out, that the place to go is back to the framework that’s centered on a big old package of climate and justice,” Pierce added. “I can’t imagine that Democrats are gonna go into the fall without having passed a package of significant investments on climate.”
If a climate bill doesn’t pass the Senate this year, Pierce said it would constitute “a monster failure.”
“If that window closes, it will be a decade before the politics are aligned to pass ambitious climate legislation.”
After Republicans gained control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama turned toward using regulations to limit pollution from fossil fuels under existing laws such as the Clean Air Act.
“After the push for cap and trade failed, President Obama said, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat,’ and over the next few years built up a regulatory agenda that was designed to help to drive that climate agenda,” Peter Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the United Nations Foundation, told Yahoo News. “I think the [Biden] administration, because they’re waiting and working with Congress to pass this legislation, a lot of these other regulatory questions are on hold.”
Not only would it be virtually impossible for the United States to meet pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half this decade without legislation, but failure to keep that promise — made repeatedly at the United Nations climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, last year — would also discourage other major emitters such as China to increase the ambition of their own climate plans.
“The reality is, you can make a lot of progress with a regulatory agenda, but if the heart of the climate strategy [in] Build Back Better doesn’t go forward, then it’s very hard to see how the U.S. can meet its 50%-52% [emissions cut] target,” Schmidt said. “And if the U.S. can’t do that, then its leverage and credibility to convince other countries to step up drops off a cliff.”
A regulatory approach is also fragile, more easily reversed than legislation, as the Trump administration demonstrated when it rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations.
Now, Biden’s executive actions are also being thrown into doubt by the courts: a Republican-appointed judge ordered the White House to sell drilling rights on federal land and water to fossil fuel companies and the Supreme Court is set to remove a crucial regulatory approach to limiting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management sold 308 tracts covering 1.7 million acres to oil and gas companies, including Chevron and ExxonMobil, last November. A different court subsequently invalidated that sale and the administration canceled future offshore lease sales, but it is still planning to sell oil and gas lease sales for 144,000 acres of federal land in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Utah and Wyoming in June. (The Department of Interior has, at least, increased the previously undermarket royalty rates on future federal leases.)
And experts say that after the Supreme Court likely invalidating one of the EPA’s regulatory tools in a forthcoming ruling, future regulations on carbon emissions from power plants may not be as strong as previously planned.
To top it all off, the high price of oil and natural gas is leading elected officials to respond with subsidies for drivers. Biden has released tens of millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and even pro-climate Democratic governors of progressive states are following suit. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has initiated a gas tax holiday for the rest of the year, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to give a tax rebate for every car registered in the state.
Meanwhile, to help Europe free itself from Russian gas, Biden has announced plans to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, even though LNG has higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gas.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but it frequently touts the progress it has made on other fronts. It has increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and it is tackling lower-profile, very potent greenhouse gases: New rules will phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in manufacturing and others will limit the leakage of methane in oil and gas wells and pipelines.
“There are meaningful headwinds against progress: some of those legislative, some are political,” said Sam Ricketts, a co-founder and co-director for Evergreen Action, a climate-focused activist group. “The president took office with the boldest agenda of any president on this front in some time. And, to be clear, important progress has been made here.”
“However, it is going to be incredibly difficult to meet our climate commitments as a country without passing major investments through the Congress,” he conceded.