Five Climate Moves by the Biden Administration You May Have Missed

Although the Build Back Better package is in limbo, the president is incorporating climate action and environmental justice into government decision-making. Critics say he should be doing more.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will oversee $126 billion in spending from President Biden's infrastructure bill, using some of the money to "reconnect" communities of color riven by interstate highways, and to build charging stations for EVs. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will oversee $126 billion in spending from President Biden's infrastructure bill, using some of the money to "reconnect" communities of color riven by interstate highways, and to build charging stations for EVs. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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President Joe Biden’s first year in office, which began with the launch of the most ambitious climate action plan of any administration, ended with its derailment due to harsh political reality.

Up against a Senate that gives outsized power to members from sparsely populated states who are allied with the fossil fuel industry, Biden wasn’t able to get his $1.7 trillion Build Back Better legislation through Congress in 2021.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) argued that the energy transition that the bill sought to spur was “at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow.” Despite ample evidence to refute Manchin’s claims—including that the Texas power crisis was caused by renewable energy—the bottom line is that Biden and other supporters of Build Back Better will need to dramatically alter the legislation to win the votes of all 50 Senate Democrats. And the clock will be ticking, as the Democrats may lose their slim hold on Congress in the 2022 election.

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Although environmental groups for the most part are continuing their push for Build Back Better, many activists and Biden’s own team are focusing on what the president can do without new legislation from Congress. 

“Using executive authority—and boldly—may be the only way that Biden will get anything done, as long as Manchin (and, perhaps, [Sen.] Kyrsten Sinema [D-Ariz.]) block effective legislative action, alongside a solid phalanx of fifty Republicans,” wrote Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, in The New Yorker.

There are signs that the courts may stand in the way of some executive actions by Biden, especially on big items like clean power. But from the start, Biden has talked about mobilizing an “all-of-government approach” to fight the climate crisis. Here are some examples of how his administration has begun to implement climate policy that have not gotten as much attention as the fight on Capitol Hill. Climate activists say in nearly every case, Biden could be doing even more.

Ending Fossil-Fueled Foreign Aid 

Late in 2021, the Biden administration issued interim guidance that restricts U.S. government support for fossil fuels overseas, implementing part of an executive order Biden signed a week after taking office. While the guidance has not been made public, a State Department cable that summarizes it, which was obtained by Inside Climate News, said government agencies would no longer finance or otherwise support any fossil fuel projects that do not capture their own emissions, except under limited circumstances.

“The goal of the policy,” the cable said, “is to ensure that the vast majority of U.S. international energy engagements promote clean energy, advance innovative technologies, boost U.S. cleantech competitiveness, and support net-zero transitions, except in rare cases where there are compelling national security, geostrategic, or development/energy access benefits and no viable lower carbon alternatives accomplish the same goals.”

According to the document, the guidance rules out all coal projects that do not fully capture or abate their emissions, and all but the rarest projects involving oil and gas.

Many environmental advocates cheered the news. In recent years, the United States has provided billions of dollars in support to fossil fuel projects in the developing world. Advocates have argued that these projects are inconsistent with meeting global climate targets and could saddle nations with expensive infrastructure destined to become obsolete in a transition away from fossil fuels.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said the new policy “will reorient tens of billions of dollars of public finance and trillions of private finance towards low carbon priorities.” The spokesperson added that the clean energy transition “won’t happen overnight,” and that “in some cases, engagement on a carbon-intensive energy project may still be necessary to protect national security or advance development goals, and no viable low-carbon alternative exists.”

Kate DeAngelis, international finance program manager with Friends of the Earth U.S., said she is concerned about how those exceptions could be interpreted. In an analysis of the state department cable, her organization said the carve-outs for national security and energy access could have arguably applied to many of the fossil fuel projects the federal government has funded in recent years, including oil and gas fields in Iraq and liquified natural gas export terminals in Mozambique.

The cable also listed talking points for State Department staff, including one that said, “As long as there is demand for fossil energy products, technologies, and services in global markets, the U.S. government will not stand in the way of U.S. companies that are ready and able to meet those needs.”

Pointing to the comments, DeAngelis said, “I am just very hesitant to get too excited about this.”

Building and Buying Better

Biden signed an executive order on Dec. 9 directing the nation’s single biggest energy consumer, employer and landowner to get on track to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

That means getting the federal government to transition its 600,000 cars and trucks to electric vehicles, to move its 300,000 buildings to carbon-free energy and to institute a “Buy Clean” policy for the $650 billion in goods and services it purchases each year. Biden is aiming not only for direct emissions reductions, but to achieve an impact that will ripple throughout the economy by creating new demand for clean technologies.

“With the federal government as an early customer, American businesses and workers can shift faster,” said Josh Freed, senior vice president of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way, a centrist think tank. “China and other global competitors have already seen the advantages of these types of strategic investments and are realizing the benefits.”

Progressives argue that Biden’s order doesn’t go far or fast enough. Agency activities or purchases can be exempted for national security or combat readiness reasons. And regardless of the order, the Biden administration has made clear it intends to continue leasing federal land for oil and gas drilling,

“President Biden has said all along that he wants the entire U.S. economy to decarbonize by 2050; realistically, that’s only possible if the U.S. government decarbonizes well before then,” said Deirdre Shelly, campaign director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement. “And even then, it’s near impossible to get to that goal if the White House refuses to stop fossil fuel extraction on public lands.”

But Biden may have to fight to implement his plan to decarbonize federal agencies and procurement if Republicans gain control of Congress and place limitations on spending. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, called the executive order “outrageous and disgraceful” and an attack on American energy workers. 

Efficiency in a New Light

On Dec. 6, the Biden administration took a first step toward reversing Trump era rollbacks on lighting efficiency standards that advocacy groups say are costing U.S. consumers $300 million in higher electricity bills every month.

The proposal would require that new consumer bulbs produce at least 45 lumens per watt—an efficiency rate that is achievable by the LED bulbs currently on the market, and which was supposed to be the industry standard by the start of 2020 under a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. But Trump disdained energy-efficient lighting as costly, and said it made him “look orange.” As a result, about 30 percent of the light bulbs sold nationally still are incandescent or halogen bulbs that generate more heat than light per unit of energy. Although the bulbs may cost less in the short term, consumers pay more in the long run for energy that is not making their homes any brighter.

The Biden administration estimates that a return to efficient lighting standards would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next 30 years, while saving U.S. consumers a net $2.9 billion per year.

Environmental advocates remain concerned that the Biden administration is not moving quickly enough on this or a dozen other appliance efficiency rollbacks enacted by the Trump administration. They also note that the lighting industry is seeking more time to meet any new standards and to sell stockpiled inventory. 

“The manufacturers have already received a couple extra years beyond Congress’s deadline to sell bulbs that have a short lifespan and waste a lot of energy,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. “Any extra time it takes and compliance flexibility [the Biden administration] gives come at the expense of consumers and the climate.”

A Team to Lead on Environmental Justice

Earthea Nance, an engineer and associate professor at Texas Southern University, has worked for two decades on the problems faced by communities of color that are at disproportionate risk of environmental hazards. 

Now, Nance will spearhead the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts in Texas and surrounding states as the Biden administration’s appointee to lead EPA Region 6. She was one of three candidates that more than 30 environmental organizations endorsed earlier this year for the important post directing federal policy in five states and 66 tribal nations.

Nance conducted community-based research after Hurricane Katrina and during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and served on the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium after Hurricane Harvey. Her predecessor in the Trump administration, Ken McQueen, brought a much different resume, as a former oil and gas industry executive who once said that climate change was “just part of the history of the world we live in.”

Nance’s appointment was one of several recent moves by the Biden administration to fill the EPA Regional Administrator posts, which do not require Senate confirmation. Until now, the spots have been held on an acting basis by longtime civil servants.

In mid-December, Biden finally jumped ahead of Trump in his rate of filling appointments, but he lags behind the pace set by Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush in getting their governing teams in place, according to tracking by the Partnership for Public Service.  In addition to opposition from Republican senators , who had been holding up dozens of Biden nominees until a deal was struck just before the holiday recess, the president has faced criticism from progressives in his own party on some of his choices.

Biden decided in November to nominate Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to another four-year term, citing the need for “stability and independence” at a time of economic uncertainty. But two of the most ardent climate action advocates in the Senate, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) had opposed Powell for not using the Fed’s authority to combat climate change by testing for climate-related risks in bank portfolios, as European central bankers have begun to do. Although Powell has enough bipartisan support to be confirmed in the Senate, his hearings in January likely will touch on the Fed’s role in addressing climate change.

The Power of the Transportation Purse-String

Historians agree that the build-out of the federal highway system that began under President Dwight D. Eisenhower reshaped America into a nation where the pattern of development was based around the automobile.

Now, the Biden administration has a chance to oversee the largest infusion of cash into U.S. transportation systems since the 1950s, thanks to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill he was able to push through Congress in November with bipartisan support.

After its passage, climate activists focused on how much more was left to be done, and set their hopes on a $1.7 trillion Build Back Better spending bill to achieve the investments needed to decarbonize electric power and transition the nation to clean energy. But with the future of the bigger package in doubt, Biden’s team is focusing on what it can achieve on climate and environmental justice with the money that Congress already has approved.

The most significant piece is the $126 billion in new spending over the next five years that will be managed by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. A Reuters analysis found that the bill boosts his discretionary spending power four-fold.

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The former South Bend mayor has made clear that the money will be going not only to fix bridges and make other long-deferred roadway improvements, but to tear down some stretches of interstate and overpasses that have served to divide neighborhoods. His “Reconnecting Communities” program aims to rectify damage done by highways that were built through minority neighborhoods around the country by making them more walkable and liveable for residents.

Buttigieg also will oversee the beginning of build-out of Biden’s promised network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, as well as the largest investment in U.S. passenger rail since the founding of Amtrak.

Climate and community activists believe the infrastructure spending is too little to make the kind of fundamental economic transition that Biden has promised or that the science dictates. But for now, the administration is treating it as an important  down payment  on the more comprehensive climate policy it is seeking to build, through a political system designed to favor incremental change.