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Biden pitching a much vaster climate plan than Obama ever attempted

Zack Colman and Ben Lefebvre
·9 min read

President Joe Biden is launching his sweeping assault on climate change with a much larger army of allies than Barack Obama had 12 years ago — a coalition that ranges from labor unions, anti-fracking activists and racial justice advocates to leaders of Wall Street, the auto industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But Biden also faces a challenge: holding together this teeming coalition, with its many competing agendas, long enough to break the logjam in Congress that doomed Obama’s efforts to force his policy changes through Congress.

He’s also pitching a much vaster climate plan than Obama ever attempted, with calls for trillions of dollars in new spending along with efforts to make combating global warming a prime mission for the entire executive branch.

“That big of a tent requires a big bank account, and that really to me is more of the question — how much money are they going to be willing to commit to this?” said Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America labor union. ”How much money is Congress going to be willing to let them commit to this?”

The factions pushing to influence Biden’s agenda also have far different priorities — including Bernie Sanders-supporting green groups that want to ban all oil and gas drilling, automakers anticipating new markets for electric cars and fossil fuel companies that hope U.S. climate action will leave room for them to continue to produce the oil and gas whose production had boomed under the previous three presidents.

Biden drew a sharp line between his plan to fight climate change and the Trump administration, which rolled back regulations, denigrated the science and turned its back on the global efforts to rein in the greenhouse gases pumping up the Earth’s temperatures. Wednesday’s flurry of executive orders have their roots in the policies he rolled out during the campaign and the pledge to make climate change policy one of the administration's top priorities.

But the new president’s approach also represents a striking change from Obama’s efforts, which included a doomed attempt to pass climate legislation in 2009 that unraveled amid opposition from Republicans and fossil fuel advocates. Only in his second term did Obama attempt to push through major greenhouse gas limits through regulations — executive actions that were still mostly unfinished when Donald Trump took office and began unraveling them.

Now, climate advocates have an even stronger case to make that ignoring the changes that are driving devastating storms, wildfires and rising seas pose an even bigger risk than ignoring them.

Biden has tied his plan to an economic stimulus — a move that’s drawn support from groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which previously opposed aggressive action from the federal government, as well as a raft of individual companies that are taking action at the behest of their customers and investors.

And the new president is seeking to appeal to racial justice groups, whose clout inside the environmental movement has skyrocketed in recent years as attention to the pollution that disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities has risen. That’s far different from the roster of national environmental groups, with their largely white leaders and lobbyists, who helped lead the charge for Obama’s doomed cap-and-trade legislation.

Advocates for that “environmental justice” movement have already shown they have the power to influence the new administration, tanking the expected nomination of veteran California air and climate regulator Mary Nichols to head the Environmental Protection Agency over complaints that she had failed to address racial disparities.

Advocates for environmental justice say giving them a seat at the table is long overdue.

"We’ve never had too many cooks in the kitchen — we’ve never had a broad diversity of perspectives," said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. "This is a good thing. This is how we get to improve life for everybody.”

Biden's orders will press pause on auctions of federal lands and waters to oil and gas companies, expand conservation protections for large swaths of land, create a new civilian conservation corps and promise to deliver economic help to coal-producing regions suffering from the industry's decline.

But pressure from that broader coalition will be needed to persuade Congress to spend the $2 trillion Biden wants to help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035 and across the economy by 2050.

Green groups were quick to welcome Biden’s climate initiatives, which had been the subject of chatter among environmental activists for weeks. Many of those groups had spent the past four years locked in court challenges against Trump's own steady stream of executive orders.

“These actions stand in stark contrast to the denial of climate change and the attacks our oceans and coasts have faced over the past four years,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, a group advocating for protection of oceans, of Biden’s plans to place an open-ended moratorium on the issuing new leases for oil and gas drilling in federal waters. “This stuff is a major step forward.”

Wednesday's orders fill in many of the details left out of last week's orders that called for blocking the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris climate agreement.

On the international front, Biden will convene a promised climate change summit with world leaders for April 22, Earth Day, and he's calling for a national intelligence estimate on the security implications of climate change. His State Department will also prepare the process for the country joining an international phase out of super-planet-heating hydrofluorocarbon chemicals as stipulated in the Montreal Protocol, and all agencies to develop strategies for integrating climate considerations into their international work.

White House Climate Envoy John Kerry said in a speech to the World Economic Forum Wednesday that the executive orders will include directing agencies to develop a plan for eliminating public finance of fossil fuel projects.

It creates a national climate task force for the 21 federal agencies and departments to coordinate actions addressing climate change. The work would include better protecting government facilities against the effects of climate change and making sure the public is kept up to date on climate-related forecasts and protection methods.

It also orders the creation a new organization, the Civilian Climate Corps Initiative, "to put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation, and addressing the changing climate."

The new orders will address environmental justice issues, such as by establishing new commissions to address the concerns of so-called fenceline communities that are disproportionately people of color or low-income families that live near pollution sources. It will create a program to deliver 40 percent of the benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.

Biden is also directing agencies to weigh the climate change effects of all their decisions, a move that could affect procurement strategies for government vehicle fleets or electricity production.

It also seeks to strengths climate defenses in rural areas, directing the secretary of Agriculture to collect input from farmers, ranchers and others on how to use federal programs to encourage adoption of agricultural practices that reduce carbon emissions.

The Biden administration's nominee for Secretary of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, speaks at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del.
The Biden administration's nominee for Secretary of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, speaks at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del.

In another move, Biden will call for meeting his campaign promise to place 30 percent of U.S. land and waters under conservation protections by 2030. The so-called 30x30 plan was proposed by Rep. Deb Haaland, Biden’s nominee to lead the Interior Department, and former New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall.

The order that has generated the sharpest opposition from oil companies is one that promises to rewrite the relationship between the industry and public lands. The Biden administration will order an open-ended freeze on offering public land for oil and gas drilling and coal mining, pending reviews of whether such leases were in the public interest. Under that review, the administration is expected to consider whether to add language to new government lease agreements to tighten standards on greenhouse gas emissions and increase the royalties that companies must pay for minerals they produce on public land.

Wednesday’s move will not affect production currently underway or the oil and gas leases and permits that companies had stockpiled under Trump administration in expectation of new restrictions. That means oil and gas production on federal land, which contributes about one-fifth of overall U.S. production, will not stop immediately, with activity likely to continue for at least another year, energy analysts have said.

But that plan is drawing sharp pushback from lawmakers from big oil and coal producing states, such as Sen. Cynthia Lummis, whose state of Wyoming is the leading coal producer in the country.

“[It’s] unbelievable that the Biden administration, to placate its radical minority and elites on both coasts, would pick on eight states that are producing energy,” Lummis told reporters on a call. “This is ill-advised. I would strongly encourage the President to withdraw this ill-conceived executive order.”

People in the oil and gas industry have said they fear the moratorium could end up becoming an outright ban, something Biden had promised on the campaign trail.

But conservation groups and even some industry analysts have argued that the fossil fuel industry is already sitting on leases for thousands of acres of federal land that companies haven’t used yet, and they questioned why the government should offer even more.

The planned review will assess whether the leasing program delivers a fair return for taxpayers, which will include calculating the effects of climate change from fossil fuels produced on federal land. That will significantly reduce the benefits from energy extraction, but the Biden team's iterative process might also insulate the administration from legal challenges, said National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara.

“It’s clear that they’re going to use sound science and the law to achieve the commitments that he made in the campaign, that are incredibly thoughtful and methodical,” O’Mara said. “It’s encouraging that they’re doing it systematically.”

Still, a pause on new activity could come back to take major bite out of some state budgets, especially those with an outsized dependence on oil production for revenue, such as New Mexico, which gets more than 10 percent of it revenue from the activity.

New Mexico Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rob Black said the moratorium would simply lead companies to shift their operations to neighboring Texas, a state with little federal property and a state oil industry regulator who has called concerns about greenhouse gas emissions “misplaced.”

“It won’t further our shared goals on carbon emissions,” Black said during a call with reporters. “It would just cause production to move a few miles down the road to private oil and gas leases [in Texas] or will incentivize it to go overseas to Saudi Arabia and Russia.”

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.