Combating climate change hangs in the balance along with the presidential election

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2020

If President Trump ekes out a victory in the presidential race, the federal government would all but vanish from international efforts to slow the Earth’s warming — and promote fossil fuels instead.

Joe Biden, by contrast, has called climate change “the existential threat to humanity.” But his promise to invest trillions of dollars into making the United States a greener nation will face a deeply divided Congress.

Either way, as my colleagues Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and I report, Tuesday’s presidential election could result in the one thing scientists say the planet can no longer afford: More years of U.S. stagnation on climate action.

With votes still being tallied in key swing states, the uncertain election outcome doesn’t change the fact the world remains woefully off target in its goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to remain “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), a threshold beyond which scientists say the planet’s ecosystems would suffer irreparable harm.

That goal is set by the Paris climate accord, an agreement the United States formally left on Wednesday after Trump spent years deriding it as a bad deal. The United States could miss its own Paris accord commitment to lower carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris accord. But much of the rest of his environmental agenda hinges on control of Congress.

Even as the electoral map tilts in Biden’s favor, signs point toward the GOP retaining control of the Senate. That outcome would dim the prospects a Biden administration could shepherd a comprehensive climate bill through Congress.

Major pieces of Biden’s $2 trillion plan to usher in a greener future — including requirements on utilities to use clean energy, incentives for Americans to buy more electric vehicles and a massive injection of money to build out lower-emissions infrastructure — would require the cooperation of both chambers of Congress.

In particular, any legislation would need the consent of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if the GOP holds on to the Senate. The Republican from the coal-mining state of Kentucky has a long history of opposition to federal action on climate issues.

“Given the fact that Biden is probably not going to have a compliant Senate to work with, don’t look for him getting policy done through a reconciliation bill or even an ambitious climate bill,” said Eric Washburn, an ex-aide to two former Senate Democratic leaders, Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Harry M. Reid (Nev.). “So he’s going to have to do what he’s going to do to promote his clean energy and climate agenda administratively.”

Should Biden win the White House, he could use his authority to appoint climate-friendly leaders to head federal agencies and enact a slew of policies, including more stringent limits on oil and gas drilling, carbon pollution from power plants, and federal mileage standards. And he’d probably provide significant support to expanding the nation’s charging network for electric vehicles, which currently make up less than 2 percent of cars and trucks on U.S. roads.

And, of course, there is rejoining Paris. On Wednesday evening, Biden wrote on Twitter that doing so would be perhaps his very first action if he prevails.

Trump, for his part, is planning on doubling down on trying to bolster fossil fuel production.

That includes expanding drilling on federal lands and waters, speeding the construction of pipelines, and scaling back the federal government’s authority to limit industrial activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Late last month, for example, the Interior Department proposed starting seismic testing in December to search for oil deposits on more than half a million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, which has been off-limits to development for four decades.

“The president’s vision on the need to be energy independent remains a major, major focus,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview.

The rest of the world reacted with dismay to the official U.S. departure from the Paris accord.

A joint statement from the leaders of Chile, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United Nations itself expressed “regret” at the U.S. withdrawal. But they insisted that the world would carry on regardless.

“We remain committed to working with all U.S. stakeholders and partners around the world to accelerate climate action, and with all signatories to ensure the full implementation of the Paris agreement,” the group wrote, adding, “There is no greater responsibility than protecting our planet and people from the threat of climate change. The science is clear that we must urgently scale up action and work together to reduce the impacts of global warming and to ensure a greener, more resilient future for us all.”

And Theresa May, the former British prime minister, lamented the U.S. departure on Twitter.

The U.S. decision to withdraw, while long expected, also encountered stiff criticism at home.

“Leaving the Paris agreement means handing over the mantle of international climate leadership to China, Germany, and other countries,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a chief supporter of a Green New Deal, said in a statement. “Leaving the Paris agreement means the road we must travel to stop climate catastrophe will see higher temperatures, more superstorms and wildfires, more climate displacement — and we simply do not have the time to be delayed or distracted.”

Not everyone was troubled by the U.S. withdrawal. Myron Ebell, who directs energy and environmental policy for the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, and who lobbied the White House in 2017 to fulfill Trump’s promise to exit, hailed the withdrawal as “the most consequential deregulatory action taken by President Trump.”

“Let the celebrations begin,” he said.

Energy, the environment and the election

A tight race for the Arizona Corporation Commission has big stakes for clean energy.

Two Republicans and a Democrat are leading in a six-way race for three open seats on the commission, which sets rates and policies for utilities, including how much renewable energy they must use. Democrat Anna Tovaralong and Republicans Lea Márquez Peterson and Jim O’Connor were ahead as of early Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reports.

“If two Republicans win, the commission’s recent decision to boost renewable-energy requirements for the first time in 14 years and force utilities to produce 100% carbon free energy in Arizona could be reversed,” the Arizona Republic writes.

Two Republicans departing the commission voted for the increase in the renewable energy requirements, but both Márquez Peterson and O’Connor have expressed opposition to such mandates. Democrats running for a spot on the five-member commission have generally favored increasing requirements for renewable energy.

“If Democrats take the majority on the commission with two or three wins this year, it would represent a massive change for the body, as they could amend policies such as how customers with rooftop solar are credited for their surplus electricity, or increase the amount of renewable energy electric companies must procure,” the Arizona Republic reports.

A Democrat lost her bid to serve on the Texas Railroad Commission.

Chrysta Castañeda conceded defeat on Wednesday after election results showed her trailing nearly 10 points behind Republican Jim Wright in a race that was closely watched by environmentalists.

“The Railroad Commission of Texas regulates the state’s massive oil and gas industry, and its elected, three-member board has been entirely Republican for at least 25 years. No Democrat has been elected to any statewide seat in Texas since 1994,” the Texas Tribune reports.

But this year, Democrats thought they had a chance with Castañeda’s race against Wright, who owns an oil field waste company. Castañeda slammed Wright for violating state environmental standards and said that if elected she would do more to curb methane emissions.

“State Democrats and environmental groups nationwide called Castañeda’s bid ‘the biggest environmental race in the country.’ The normally low-profile race got a massive fundraising boost last month when billionaire Mike Bloomberg made a late donation of $2.6 million to Castañeda,” the Texas Tribune reports.

Nevada voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring 50 percent renewable energy by 2050.

“Voters gave the final OK to Question 6, known as the Nevada Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, by a margin of 56%-44%. Nevada constitutional amendments require voters to approve the measure twice. The initiative gained initial approval from nearly 60% of voters in 2018,” Law 360 reports.

The ballot initiative was backed by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. The measure is somewhat redundant of legislation signed last year by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, which commits the state to a similar renewable energy target. Backers of the amendment, however, say that integrating into the state’s constitution will make it more resilient to political challenges.

Democrats probably will maintain control of the House, but they lost more races than expected.

In South Carolina, Republican Nancy Mace claimed a victory over incumbent Rep. Joe Cunningham (D), flipping a seat that Democrats had won just two years before. Cunningham’s surprise 2018 victory came after he cultivated bipartisan support for a campaign focused on opposing offshore drilling. Cunningham sponsored a bill last year that would have created a permanent ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic Coast. But the Democrat may have found it harder to ride the issue to victory this time around: Mace has said she is opposed to offshore drilling, and President Trump took some of the sting out of the issue when he ordered a 10-year moratorium on drilling off much of the southeastern Atlantic coast.

In New Mexico, Republican challenger Yvette Herrell defeated first-term Democrat Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in a race where energy issues featured prominently. Oil and gas are important industries in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, and Torres Small distanced herself from comments that Joe Biden made during the final presidential debate in which he called for a transition away from fossil fuels. But it wasn’t enough to defend her seat in a district that voted heavily for Trump.

House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D) lost his seat in a Minnesota district after serving for 30 years on Capitol Hill. Peterson held on for years, even as his rural district grew increasingly conservative. He lost on Tuesday to Republican Michelle Fischbach, a former lieutenant governor, who sought to tie the Democrat to left-wing lawmakers. Peterson was heavily involved in shaping major farm bills and went into the election with the backing of state and national farming groups.

Overall, Democrats probably will retain control of the House but fell far short of predictions that they would make major inroads in districts that had voted for Trump in 2016.

Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) wins the race for Montana governor.

As governor, Gianforte’s plans may “include streamlined permitting for natural resources such as coal, oil, gas and timber,” the Associated Press reports. “That’s likely to trigger a strong pushback from conservation groups and Democrats in the minority in the Legislature. Mining for copper, gold and other resources earned the state its nickname, but also funneled huge riches to a relatively small number of people and left a legacy of polluted sites.”

Gianforte beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, securing Republican control of the Montana governorship for the first time since 2005. The win was part of a larger Republican rout of Democrats in the state.