Biden hits roadblocks on path to low-carbon economy

Source: By James Osborne, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2021

The sun sets behind a group of pump jacks Wednesday, June 1, 2011, outside of Midland. ( Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle )
The sun sets behind a group of pump jacks Wednesday, June 1, 2011, outside of Midland. ( Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle ) Brett Coomer, Staff / Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden announced in April that he was planning to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next nine years, administration officials believed the goal was ambitious but achievable through policies that would accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and effectively ban power plants from emitting carbon dioxide.

But a series of early setbacks in both court and Congress is providing a reality check for the administration. Biden is quickly finding out that achieving such a sharp drop in emissions over such a short period will be inordinately difficult in the current political climate.

The decision by a Louisiana federal judge Wednesday requiring the Department of Interior to end its pause on oil and gas leasing came as the administration’s plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on electric vehicle charging stations and tax credits was looking unlikely to make it into any bipartisan infrastructure package that might materialize.

And if the administration officials had any question about Republicans willingness to shift the nation away from fossil fuels, they only had to look to Texas where the Republican-controlled state government just passed a law limiting state entities including pension funds from investing with companies seeking to shift investment from fossil fuels.

“How’s he doing reworking the entire economy? It’s going slowly,” quipped Glenn Schwartz, director of energy policy at the Washington consulting firm Rapidan Group. “His big goals are limited by partisan gridlock in Congress. Going forward he’s going to need to rely on his existing authority as president, but there he’s really just playing at the edges.”

In the days following his inauguration, Biden came out hard on climate change, painting the issue both as an existential crisis for the planet but also one that offered the potential for a clean energy boom that would create new industries and new jobs.

He rejoined the Paris agreement on climate change, promising to lead an international charge on climate that continued at this week’s G7 summit in England, where he secured pledges from nations including Germany, Canada and Japan to slash emissions in half by 2030 toward the larger goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century.

“While we continue working across the aisle to ensure we make the infrastructure investments for the future, we are fully committed to fighting for the clean energy investments necessary to position America to tackle the climate crisis,” a White House official said.

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Europe and Canada have moved more aggressively than the United States, but whether they achieve their pledged emission reductions remains to be seen. In the United States, the situation is even more precarious.

Republicans have shifted away from their earlier questioning of climate change – pressured by increasing public awareness on the threat. But with former president Donald Trump, a vocal climate skeptic, still a powerful force in the party, most Republicans remain opposed to any action that would reduce demand for fossil fuels.

That remains especially true in energy-rich states such as Texas, where Biden’s efforts to address climate have met with not just resistance but disdain.

“We’re here for a singular purpose today, to make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil and gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C.,” Governor Greg Abbott said in January after Biden announced plans to pause federal oil and gas leasing.

Biden had hoped to create a clean electricity standard in the infrastructure legislation, shifting the power grid to 80 percent clean energy by 2030. But without a single Republican supporter in the Senate, the administration has all but conceded that the standard is unlikely to make it into a bipartisan bill.

With few Republican allies on climate, Biden has been forced to rely on his presidential powers to make changes, namely the authority granted him under existing environmental and financial laws to tighten regulations and make life increasingly difficult on oil and other fossil fuel sectors.

A long list of options is at his disposal, such as tougher fuel-efficiency standards for new cars, new rules for corporate emissions reporting and tighter methane emissions regulations for oil and gas drilling – which industry now says it supports.

After Tuesday’s court ruling, however, it’s unclear how much leeway he’ll get from a court system that has become increasingly wary of executive authority as modern presidents have come to rely on that power over deal-making with Congress.

“There is only so much you can do through executive orders. If you ever needed proof, look at what happened in federal court in Louisiana,” said Scott Segal, an energy attorney in Washington. “Trump learned this. Aggressive use of executive authority can result in a paring back of that authority by the courts.”

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That leaves Biden no option but to work with Congress. Democrats and Republicans might be able to reach agreement on some policies such as tax credits for carbon capture and hydrogen energy, both viewed as critical technologies for the oil and gas industry in a low-carbon future.

But the concept of a national carbon policy, which, through regulation or taxes, would shift industries to clean energy, seems ever more elusive. Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and some Republicans have argued for a carbon fee to provide economic incentives to cut emissions.

But the idea is a tough sell among most Republicans, to whom any whiff of a new tax is anathema, and some Democrats, who think more drastic action is needed. Even in liberal states that have been moving aggressively to expand clean energy, referendums to enact a carbon price have failed with voters.

“Where these discussions fall apart is where does the money go and what level do we set it at and what do we do about (greenhouse gas) regulation,” Schwartz said. “Even in a heavily Democratic state like Washington they couldn’t pass it.”