Biden, in new climate plan, embraces more aggressive steps

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Joe Biden unveiled a proposal Tuesday to transform the nation’s energy industry, pledging to eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and spend $2 trillion to turbocharge the clean energy economy.

The plan would significantly reduce the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels, and the 15-year timeline for a 100 percent clean electricity standard is far more ambitious than anything Biden has previously proposed.

It was Biden’s latest attempt to channel the liberal energy in his party, as well as a response to calls for sweeping plans to lift a struggling economy. The blueprint was quickly hailed by environmentalists and liberals as a big step forward in the climate effort, and just as quickly denounced by Republicans as an unwieldy plan that would raise energy costs.

“We’re not just going to tinker around the edges,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Del. “We’re going to make historic investments and seize the opportunity and meet this moment in history.”

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee proposed upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes over four years, which his campaign estimates would create 1 million jobs. Homeowners would be given cash rebates to upgrade home appliances and install more efficient windows. Car owners would receive rebates to swap their old, less efficient cars for newer ones that release fewer pollutants.

Biden also said he would create a new “Environmental and Climate Justice Division” within the Justice Department to prosecute anti-pollution cases. “These aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams,” he said. “These are actionable policies that we can get to work on right away.”

Many of Biden’s proposals build on the recommendations of a task force made up jointly of allies of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Those recommendations include plans to dramatically expand solar and wind energy, including the installation of 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines.

Biden’s plan is likely to trigger a vigorous debate with President Trump, who has a much different approach to the country’s energy sector and climate policy.

Trump, a strong backer of fossil fuels, has sought to roll back Obama-era policies aimed at decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and setting new standards for household items such as lightbulbs. He has also downplayed the science behind climate change, and in 2017 he pledged to pull the United States out of the Paris climate pact.

Trump’s embrace of the coal industry was one of his signature issues in 2016, part of his portrait of Hillary Clinton as disdainful of the country’s industrial workers. It’s not clear whether Trump can successfully level similar attacks against Biden, or whether the political landscape has shifted to make that difficult.

In 2016, Republicans attacked Clinton for her comment that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” though Clinton was suggesting this would happen because of market forces, not as part of her plan.

Trump, meanwhile, pledged to revive the ailing coal industry, telling miners in West Virginia that “we are going to get those mines open” if he were elected. But the coal industry has continued to struggle under Trump, largely because of competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

The Trump campaign was quick to go after Biden’s proposal Tuesday.

“His plan is more like a socialist manifesto that promises to massively raise taxes, eliminate jobs in the coal, oil or natural gas industries, and crush the middle class,” said Hogan Gidley, the campaign’s national press secretary. “He’s pushing extreme policies that would smother the economy just when it’s showing signs of roaring back.”

Biden, in pledging Tuesday to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, embraced a more direct approach than President Barack Obama, his boss at the time, took a decade ago during his own efforts to rein in emissions from the power sector.

During his first year in office, Obama worked with congressional Democrats on a cap-and-trade system, in which companies buy and sell credits permitting them to release carbon into the atmosphere.

But the measure proved politically toxic. It passed the House but was never given a vote in the Senate.

Instead, Biden wants to require electric utilities to get more of their power from carbon-free sources — including wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric — and to improve the energy efficiency of their systems or face penalties.

While some changes could be made through executive actions, a sweeping plan like Biden’s could face resistance in Congress — one reason the campaign is framing it as an economic package and not solely an environmental initiative. If Biden wins, its fate may depend on whether Democrats retake the Senate, but the plan’s supporters say it has more appeal than a cap-and-trade system.

“It’s built on a smart approach that’s already been tested in the states,” said Dan Reicher, a former Energy Department official who co-founded Clean Energy for Biden, which is fundraising for the campaign. “It will be less controversial than a national cap-and-trade system or carbon tax, with real prospects for bipartisan support.”

Similar standards have proved to be politically viable at the state level. A majority of states — including several conservative ones such as Montana, Iowa and Texas — have imposed their own renewable energy requirements on local utilities. But no standard exists at the federal level.

The ratcheted-up targets came after Biden faced pressure from young left-leaning activists and major environmental groups to do more to address what they see as a generational crisis.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, praised the Biden campaign’s announcement for going “further than the strong plan he put out last summer,” saying public polling shows voters have an appetite for action. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the federal government should act more aggressively against climate change, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center.

The big-spending League of Conservation Voters, which pumped more than $80 million into the 2018 election, endorsed Biden in April only after he promised to toughen his climate plan.

Biden said Tuesday that the proposal was aimed at twin goals of rebuilding the economy and fighting climate change. Much of the spending, he said, would go toward repairing bridges and roads and improving public transportation systems.

He claimed that his proposal was doing what Trump has not, in what became a running joke as the White House week after week said the president would focus on repairing the country’s infrastructure, only to digress into other subjects.

“It seems like every few weeks when he needs a distraction from the latest charges of corruption . . . the White House announces, quote, it’s infrastructure week,” Biden said. “But he’s never delivered. He’s never even really tried.”

Biden’s proposal says all American-built buses should emit zero greenhouse gases by 2030, and it would also aim to convert the country’s 500,000 school buses, including those running on diesel fuel, to zero emissions. As Biden has promised previously, he would also aim to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.

To tackle climate-warming pollution from the transportation sector, the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas source, Biden is endorsing a bill from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would pay people to trade in gas-guzzling cars for electric and other low-emissions vehicles — essentially a “cash for clunkers” program on steroids.

While comparing his proposals to what the Obama administration did during the 2009 stimulus, Biden said, “We’ll do it again. But this time bigger and faster and smarter.”

Biden also said he would use the government’s purchasing power to convert 3 million vehicles in the federal fleet to clean cars, giving the auto industry an incentive to produce more environmentally friendly cars, trucks and postal vehicles.

Biden’s campaign declined to describe exactly how he would pay for the new spending. Some of it, advisers said, would be through stimulus funding, which could add to the ballooning federal deficit. It could also be offset by rescinding the tax cuts pushed by Trump and approved by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2017, or by “asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share,” the advisers said.

The campaign intends to more fully describe how its plans would be funded in the coming weeks, after Biden outlines more of his spending plans, aides said.

The climate proposal does not go into detail about what would happen to areas of the country that are heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry, although one part of Biden’s plan aims to create 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hard-rock and uranium mines.

Biden is also calling for the creation of a “civilian climate corps,” an idea that was promoted during the Democratic primary by Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Biden has spoken with Inslee, who ran against him in the Democratic primary with a campaign focused sharply on climate change, and former Inslee advisers have been working with Biden’s campaign to craft his energy policy.

“This is the single most comprehensive and ambitious climate plan ever advanced by a major presidential nominee,” said Sam Ricketts, who co-authored Inslee’s climate plan and co-founded Evergreen Action, a group pushing to implement the Inslee plan.

Biden is also calling for several environmental justice provisions, including a proposal that some 40 percent of the money he wants to spend on clean energy would go to historically disadvantaged communities.

Biden held a fundraiser Monday with about 140 executives where he spoke about his focus on clean energy.

“I don’t have to be Pollyannaish about this: Donald Trump has ignored the warning, refused to prepare,” he said of the climate crisis.

The former vice president also said he would take swift action and set a more urgent timeline than his earlier proposal, which would have sought to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants by 2050.

That 2050 deadline, he said, “is a million years from now [for] most people. My plan is focused on taking action — now. God willing I win and even if I serve eight years, I want to make sure we put down such a marker that it’s impossible for the next president to turn it around.”