FORGET A PRESIDENT’S FIRST 100 DAYS, WHAT HAS BIDEN DONE FOR ENERGY IN HIS FIRST 2 WEEKS?
The traditional flag in the sand for a new Presidential Administration to roll out its top priorities and associated actions is the 100-day mark. Set plans for the first three months and a review of those actions allow time to unleash the legislative agenda, establish international relationships, get nominees approved by Congress, and generally hit the ground running.
Or that’s what used to consider hitting the ground running before! After taking over a tumultuous situation from his predecessor, one whom he disagreed with in many ways, President Biden has sent the signal that Americans don’t need to wait 100 days to see critical action. His 17 Executive Orders signed in the first 24 hours, more than several of his predecessors combined, demonstrated the commitment to swift action. In particular, the Biden Administration has made its priorities known early on when it comes to energy issues. When it comes to the fight against climate change, where time is perhaps our most limited resource left, Biden demonstrated that speed is the name of the game with action towards R&D funding, environmental regulations, climate commitments, and more. And if he sought to undo the destructive practices of the past four years and beyond, there was no time to wait.
With that in mind, President Biden’s first two weeks have signaled more about his energy priorities, his commitment to campaign promises, and his administrative agenda than perhaps any President that came before him. So, rather than wait for those traditional 100 days, the first two weeks of President Biden already offer more than enough fodder for a review.
It was no secret that energy was a core focus of the then-Democratic Nominee for President, as Biden’s platform to the American people highlighted an aggressive commitment to clean energy and the energy transition. Seeking to highlight a difference between himself and President Trump, show a commitment to embracing science, and looking to the future of a more sustainable energy industry, Biden promised a litany of actions. His official punch list of priorities included the following:
-Undoing energy and environmental actions from President Trump
-Put the nation on a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050
-Reestablish the United States as a world leader on climate action
-Invest $400 billion over ten years in clean energy and innovation
-Accelerate the deployment of cleantech like energy efficient buildings and EV chargers
-Prioritize environmental justice principles in all actions
-Create public accountability of reporting emissions
-Create 10 million clean energy jobs
-Protect the workers in communities that will see decreased viability of their industries because of the energy transition, such as those working in coal plants.
But a campaign promise is, unfortunately, no guarantee of action. So, in the two weeks since, what have we seen in terms of tangible action to put these words into practice?
President Biden’s first tangible actions that signaled his ability and intent to follow through on campaign promises were who he announced as key federal nominees, which were made public even before taking the oath of office.
For the Department of Energy, Biden nominated Jennifer Granholm to be the Secretary. Granholm is a former governor of Michigan and, as such, has lots of history with the auto industry. Many saw this pick as one signaling how intent of a focus the transition to electric vehicles will be under President Biden. In the time since her nomination, Granholm has stressed how intently she plants to focus on creating energy jobs as the core focus of her role. She also seeks to get started quickly to work through the backlog of clean energy grants, investments, and other projects that are at the disposal of the Department of Energy but had been permitted to fall by the wayside under President Trump.
Another key nominee for the energy agenda came for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Biden nominated North Carolina Regulator Michael Regan to head up this department. The nomination of Regan signals Biden’s intent to focus on tightening environmental regulations of the oil and gas sectors, as well as the energy sector as a whole, as Regan is best known for his time as North Carolina Environmental Chief where he pursued the cleanup of pollutants and toxins across the state. The state’s governor cosigned this choice, praising Regan as “a consensus builder and a fierce protector of the environment.”
A third high-profile nominee that will have energy implications is the selection of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland, who is a member of the Pueblo Laguna native tribe, is known to be a fierce defender of natural lands and resources across the country. In response to the nomination, Haaland “pledged to transform the department from a champion of fossil fuel development into a promoter of renewable energy and policies to mitigate climate change.”
While those high-level nominees are chalked up as early energy-related wins for Biden, they still need to go through the official confirmation process. But in the meantime, President Biden sought to use the ability of Presidential Executive Action like never before to gain even more quick wins.
KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE
The first executive action to note came in his revoking of the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline. This pipeline project has been a lightning rod of passion and controversy, with doom-filled predictions from both side of the debate related to whether or not the pipeline project should be permitted to be built. Currently, a pipeline is used to transport crude oil and petroleum liquids from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, all the way to the Gulf Coast, where the bulk of U.S. oil refineries and export facilities are located. The oil and gas industry anticipated a future need for greater capacity to transport these oil products to keep up with higher expected demand, and the Keystone XL pipeline was a planned expansion of that existing capacity along this route.
Environmental concerns, though, became a dominant part of the discussion, as voiced by environmental advocates, native rights groups, and climate crusaders. Based on this opposition, President Obama put a stall on the license for the pipeline in 2015, but subsequently one of President Trump’s earliest energy decisions to was to reverse that and allow the project to move ahead as originally planned.
Since taking office, though, President Biden has issued several memos and executive orders that involve revoking this necessary license, following up on a specific campaign promise to do so. The $8 billion project was years long in the process, and several hundred miles had already been built, but Biden can and did put a stop to it through federal executive action.
Pipeline supporters argue that this action is shortsighted because it will simply lead to American oil and gas becoming more expensive and those costs being passed off to consumers via higher manufacturing and transportation costs. Along the way, they argue, the oil and gas industry will be damaged through economic and jobs losses, consequences that can’t be ignored amid a pandemic. The CEO of Association of Oil Pipe Lines cites 10,000 jobs killed and $2.2 billion of wages lost as a result of these actions.
Pipeline opponents, however, cheer this move and really see it as just the beginning. Not only would these actions by Biden see a particularly harmful fossil fuel reduced, but the environmental hazards of building through wild natural areas, the potential for oil leaks, and other hazards are subsequently minimized. Environmental advocates further hope these actions by Biden will signal to other oil and gas pipelines that their future is on the line and the Biden administration won’t be giving free passes. Pipeline protestors now have their sights turned to the Dakota Access pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois, the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, Line 5 between Wisconsin and Canada, and Mountain Valley gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia. According to Ben Cowan, environmental law attorney who advises clients on pipeline permits, future pipelines will face “a lot of headwinds in its permitting process generally. And the regulatory climate is certainly not going to be any kinder to it now than it was. I think a lot of people are questioning, frankly, whether it’s worth it anymore. “
HALTING OIL AND GAS LEASING IN THE ARCTIC
Another area of concern regarding fossil fuels tackled early by the Biden administration, seeking to undo damages from the Trump years, was the opening up of previously protected natural lands in the Alaskan Arctic to oil and gas drilling. Specifically, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge had previously been protected for the sake of the natural environment, the wildlife who lived and migrated across the lands, and the people who relied upon them, but Trump officially opened these lands to be auctioned off to oil and gas drillers. In fact, on President Trump’s final day in office he approved leases to drill in more than 400,000 acres of Alaskan land.
These moves by Trump were praised by the oil and gas companies who thought the reserves under that land were prime to bring more affordable fossil fuel reserves, as well as by some local groups who wanted the economic activity such drilling brought. The Alaskan governor, for example, said to block off leasing on these lands would hurt the Alaskan economy and come at the price of turning the state into a large national park rather than productive asset.
On the other side, though, opponents to oil drilling saw the sacrifice of this precious natural land for oil and gas commodities to be shortsighted, to pose a threat to endangered wildlife, and to be potentially harmful to communities that lived near these lands. Additionally, the additional oil and gas produced on these lands would only serve to add emissions to the atmosphere and spell a delay in clean energy transition. These arguments underscore why Biden issued a temporary moratorium on the leasing of these lands.
REJOINING THE PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT
The most high-profile action, however, may have been Biden’s decision to immediately rejoin the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement. President Trump had withdrawn the United States from the international accord on climate action, citing concerns that the United States was putting in way more than its fair share and it would hurt the U.S. economy more than any others, arguing “The Paris accord would have been shutting down American producers with excessive regulatory restrictions like you would not believe, while allowing foreign producers to pollute with impunity. What we won’t do is punish the American people while enriching foreign polluters.”
However, because of the timing of it all, Trump could only announce intention to leave the Paris Climate Accord for most of his presidency, while only officially leaving the accord as of November 2020. But because Biden won the election, only a few short months later—on the day he was inaugurated—he was able to reverse that decision and rejoin the accord.
The irony of all the back and forth on the Paris Climate Agreement is that the United States actually played a significant role in crafting the Accord in 2015, when Biden was Vice President. Given that history, it’s not surprising that Biden saw it as a high priority to right what he saw as a fundamental wrong under President Trump. Fundamentally, the goal of the Paris Climate accord is to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 to 2.0o Celsius, and it does so by asking nations to evaluate where and how they can reduce their emissions. As the world’s second largest carbon emitter, the United States entering the agreement is monumental for accepting the country’s role on the international stage and that it intends to carry its share of the load in emissions reductions, supporting the rest of the global community in doing the same, and preparing for resilience in some of the more vulnerable nations and communities in doing so.
DIRECTION TO FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
Beyond those high-profile actions, the first two weeks under President Biden have seen some other fundamental actions taken that are changing the course of energy policy in the country. For one, Biden has long sought to dispel the fear that clean energy action was going to come at the expense of the worker and his and her family, instead steering into the idea that clean energy will create jobs. And those jobs created, he notes, will be better paying, more sustainably lasting, and better for the planet. In that vein, Biden created the Director of Energy Jobs at the U.S. Department of Energy and will work towards Biden’s stated goal of creating 10 million clean energy jobs.
Biden has also sought to utilize the federal government’s status as the largest procurer of goods in the economy (aggregating at over $18 billion) to move carbon neutral products, electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy storage, and more. Specifically, a recent executive order “directs the federal agencies to procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles to create good-paying, union jobs and stimulate clean energy industries.
A last notable achievement in the infancy of the Biden presidency comes with a focus on environmental justice. President Biden oversaw the creation of a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory council to address the historical ills the energy has inflicted on disadvantaged communities. This core principle of environmental justice had previously only been taken up by a minority of voices, amounting to a side discussion in climate and energy discussions previously, but Biden is bringing them to the table.
With such a flurry of action during the first two weeks—a time in which energy and climate were by no means the sole focus of President Biden—the pace has been set and aggressive transformation of the energy industry appears to be squarely on the agenda.