As President-elect Joseph R. Biden assembles the environment and energy team for his new administration, he is honing his strategy to address climate change in the face of a divided Congress and a leadership in opposition intent on limiting his ability to keep his campaign promises.
Even if both Democratic candidates for the US Senate from Georgia win their January 5, 2021 runoff elections, the Democrats will have secured the narrowest of Senate majorities, 50-50, with ties to be broken by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Biden has proposed spending $2 trillion on clean energy over the next four years to address climate concerns and to create jobs. But the Biden campaign's climate plan was largely dependent on a legislative push with a Senate led by Democrats. Much of the plan will be set aside in all but rhetoric for executive and regulatory action and a more pragmatic path in Congress.
Biden will look at the political realities and likely forgo as dead on arrival any early effort to put his broader plan through Congress in favor of trying to pass his climate change proposals in small increments, when and where he can.
He is expected to begin with a flurry of new executive orders.
He is also expected to use federal procurement and infrastructure investments to spur clean-energy tech and to create jobs.
It will take considerable effort and time to undue regulatory changes put in place under the Trump administration, let alone pass new laws.
Biden will more likely than not be able in his first four years to expand solar and wind, expand the network of charging stations for electric vehicles, reverse a significant share of the Trump administration's regulatory policies on the environment, and rekindle federal partnerships with state, local and global entities on climate change. He may find it harder to make progress after the first two years because the political party holding the White House usually loses seats in Congress in the mid-term elections: in this case in 2022. However, Democrats will have a favorable electoral map going into the 2022 elections.
Biden's actions as president can be expected to lead to a decrease in greenhouse emissions compared to what would have happened under another four years of Trump administration.
The United States under President Trump became the first nation to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in November. The agreement has been signed by more than 200 countries.
Biden is expected to rejoin the accord by February 2021.
The United States is currently half way to meeting the goal in the Paris accord of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. In the absence of federal action, what success has been achieved is largely attributable to efforts by states and municipalities and the benefits of moving to renewable energy as a source of electricity.
The United States can be expected to re-focus on what steps it can take to meet the 28% target by the time world leaders meet at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland that is currently planned for November 2021.
Rejoining Paris will be easy. Reaching the 28% goal in the five years remaining will be more challenging, particularly if the incoming administration is unable to rely on help from Congress and as attention will also have to be given to economic recovery from the downturn caused by COVID-19.
A Senate that is split 50-50 would expand Biden's options on climate change, but only slightly. It would not be enough to pass a broad-ranging climate bill.
Major bills require 60 votes to pass the Senate because opponents can use the filibuster to prevent the Senate from cutting off debate.
One way around the Senate filibuster is a budgetary procedure known as "reconciliation." It allows one budget reconciliation bill a year to pass by a simple majority vote, but that bill can only contain measures related to tax revenue and spending.
Such a bill might be used for tax credits for wind and solar, assuming Democrats win both Senate races in Georgia.
Other climate measures would require the support of Democrats whose constituencies rely on the fossil fuel industry or on moderate Republicans to pass.
At least a few Democrats from states that produce fossil fuels have signaled a shift to favoring some action on climate change.
Polls show growing concern about climate change among the public over the last decade as scientific evidence mounts of melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Almost two thirds of Americans said in a Pew Research Center poll this year that the government is doing too little to confront climate change.
Nevertheless, opposition remains even among some Congressional Democrats, and members like coal-state Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) will play gatekeeper roles in any climate debate. Manchin is the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee and would be chairman in an equally divided Senate.
Biden's lengthy legislative experience and willingness to work the middle may prove to be an asset.
The Democrats retain control of the House where they may try to inject more modest climate provisions into broader, popular or must-pass bills.
For example, if an infrastructure bill moves through Congress with bipartisan support, the House could add and then resist attempts to remove climate policy provisions. Measures to encourage construction of electric vehicle charging stations, promote energy-efficient homes or expand railroads stand a better chance than a carbon tax or a federal cap-and-trade plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Modest spending and tax measures and reinstated environmental regulations will not be enough to reduce carbon emissions by 28% compared to 2005 levels by 2025.
Significant elements of Biden's climate plan require bipartisan support and would face pushback from Congress, even with a 50-50 Senate.
Biden called during the campaign for the government to mandate net-zero emissions by 2050 and to adopt a "clean energy standard" to push for more zero-carbon electricity generation from renewables like wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear energy. He wants the federal government vehicle fleet to consist solely of hybrid and electric vehicles. He wants to promote use of equipment on farms to capture methane emissions from manure and to create a new federal research agency that would focus on finding solutions to climate change.
The team that will help Biden with environmental and climate policy is still taking shape. So far, he is drawing on people with deep experience and knowledge of the inner workings of government.
Here is what we knew as the NewsWire went to print.
The leading contender to head the US Environmental Protection Agency is Mary D. Nichols, but she faces headwinds from both the right and left.
Nichols was the top air regulator in California and head of the California Air Resources Board. She engineered the state's cap-and-trade law that limits greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and allows utilities to buy and sell credits to cover emissions of greenhouse gases. She also set important regulations on auto emissions in California.
Nichols has been a prominent opponent of various Trump administration environmental rollbacks over the past four years.
Another contender for EPA administrator is the current head of the National Wildlife Federation, Collin O'Mara. O'Mara has ties to the Biden family from when he headed the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from 2009 to 2014. Before that, he led the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or "RGGI," the cap-and-trade program now covering 10 states from the mid-Atlantic to New England. O'Mara also served on the Obama administration's task force on climate adaptation and preparedness.
Another name in the mix is Heather McTeer Toney, who served previously as administrator of EPA Region 4 during the Obama administration and is a former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi.
Some speculate with good reason that O'Mara or McTeer Toney might face an easier nomination process than Nichols, but Nichols remains the odds-on favorite despite opposition to her confirmation.
Nichols' detractors criticize the command-and-control culture in California and her role in it.
Nichols has a record of being tough, but she has also demonstrated an ability to work with industry. For example, she led an effort in which California and five major automakers agreed in 2019 on tailpipe emissions standards for autos that were not as strict as Obama-era rules, but that were stricter than those under the Trump administration.
Nichols cites the 2019 agreement as a template for regulators to make progress while avoiding lengthy litigation.
Nichols was confirmed before by the Senate as the Clinton EPA air chief in 1993 and is the candidate with the deepest resume.
EPA began communicating with Biden transition team in late November.
More people appear to remain in the running to head the Department of the Interior.
One contender is Michael Connor, a former deputy secretary of Interior under Obama. He also served in the department throughout the Clinton administration. If selected, he would be the first Native American to be named to a cabinet position. He is a member of the Taos Pueblo sovereign nation in New Mexico.
US Representative Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) also remains in the running and is one of the few Native Americans elected to Congress. She serves on the House Natural Resources Committee. She was only elected to Congress in 2018. Haaland has support from a lot of her House colleagues.
A dark horse candidate is Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico). Udall is retiring at the end of this year. His father, Stewart Udall, served as Interior secretary in the 1960s. He has pushed to restrict oil and gas drilling on federal property and has favored protection of public lands as designated wilderness areas in Utah.
Council on Environmental Quality
The leading contenders to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality appear to be Mustafa Santiago Ali and Brenda Mallory. The Council will help shape and harmonize environmental policy across the new administration.
Ali currently serves as vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation and has more than 20 years of experience at EPA. He started the EPA Office of Environmental Justice and also served as a senior adviser to the Obama EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, on environmental justice issues.
Brenda Mallory served as the general counsel to the Council on Environmental Quality under Obama. Before that, she served in various roles at EPA over a 15-year tenure, including as the agency's principal deputy general counsel. She is currently the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Both Ali and Mallory are likely to be asked to serve in some capacity in the new administration.
While Biden has already announced a foreign-policy team that will focus on climate change as a national security matter, he has also created a new position of "presidential envoy on climate" to lead efforts "to combat the climate crisis and mobilize action to meet this existential threat."
Former US Secretary of State and Biden friend John Kerry will serve in this role. Climate change was one of Kerry's signature diplomatic issues during his time as Secretary of State. He is well-known in diplomatic circles
Kerry will have a seat on the National Security Council at the White House.
Another new high-level White House position for Biden to fill is that of White House domestic climate policy coordinator. The appointee will help keep the various federal agencies focused on reaching climate goals and push legislative options for addressing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
One person in the mix for this role is Ali A. Zaidi, the current deputy secretary of energy and environment for New York. He served previously as associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and was involved in creating Obama's framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, known as the White House Climate Action Plan.
Another front runner for the post is the former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm. Granholm was also an adviser to Hillary Clinton on energy and has also been rumored to be under consideration for other posts.
Biden named Brian Deese to head the White House National Economic Council. Deese advised President Obama broadly on climate issues and was a key player in work on the Paris climate accord. His official roles included deputy director of the Office of the Management and Budget and deputy director of the National Economic Council during the Obama era. He spent the last three years as global head of sustainable living for BlackRock.
Biden has asked Senator Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) to push his climate agenda in Congress. Carper is in line to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — if the Democrats win the two Senate seats in Georgia.