With Trump Gone, Old Fault Lines in the Climate Movement Reopen, Complicating Biden’s Path Forward

The administration favors an approach to emissions reduction that includes technologies like carbon capture. Many activists oppose anything other than renewable energy sources.

Activists gathered outside the White House in May to demand that President Joe Biden refuse to compromise on election promises regarding climate change and social justice. (Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)
Activists gathered outside the White House in May to demand that President Joe Biden refuse to compromise on election promises regarding climate change and social justice. (Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

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As President Joe Biden works to enact his plan for cutting greenhouse gases, a long dormant rift among climate action activists is surfacing.

On one side are those who believe that renewable energy—especially solar, wind, and hydroelectricity—will be sufficient to fuel the economy and get the world to zero emissions. On the other side are those who, like the Biden administration, think fossil fuels are likely to have a role in the nation’s energy future, making it important to invest in technology to capture carbon emissions. 

This dispute was largely buried in recent years, as progressives and moderates bonded together to oppose President Donald Trump’s wholesale unraveling of environmental protections. But now it threatens to complicate the already difficult job that Biden faces in getting his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan through Congress.


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“These are divisions that reflect, I think, on one side an ideological crusade of the far left versus a pragmatic approach by the Biden administration that is focused on what’s politically possible,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic consultant for the Progressive Policy Institute who worked on climate change in President Bill Clinton’s White House.

But a series of recent Biden administration decisions have disappointed environmentalists, including  the defense of a huge Trump-approved oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope;, the issuing of Western oil and gas leases sold during Trump’s final days; and the refusal to shut down controversial oil pipelines. And as Biden searched for Republican support in Congress for his climate plan, tensions among environmentalists were running high.

The climate action movement united behind Biden last year after he became the Democratic presumptive nominee. And Biden’s ambitious goals—especially his commitment to put the United States on a path toward 100 percent clean electricity by 2035—came out of a joint task force he established with his chief rival and avatar of the progressive movement, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

But there is fierce disagreement about what “clean electricity” means.

The White House is convinced it is necessary to take an expansive approach in reducing carbon pollution, both to secure the needed votes and to get the nation on track to net zero emissions. That approach would include investments in carbon capture, a technology that pulls carbon dioxide from smokestacks or even directly from the air and buries it underground or diverts it to other uses.

Although carbon capture technology already exists, it is expensive, and billions have been spent in the United States on failed efforts to deploy “clean coal” carbon capture power plants. Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes carbon capture demonstration projects, focused on large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities, sectors that are seen as more difficult to decarbonize than utilities. 

“The President is interested in all-of-the-above-strategy,” said White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy earlier this month, at a summit hosted by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “We’re going to do a lot of things, and invest in a clean energy future, and make sure we have the flexibility to use the technologies that are going to get there.”

But renewable energy advocates are mounting a fight against the inclusion of any approach other than renewables, with opposition driven by one of Biden’s core constituencies, the racial justice movement. The White House’s own environmental justice advisory council has come out against federal investment in carbon capture and other non-renewable approaches.

Meanwhile, some 700 environmental and racial justice groups have signed a letter urging Congressional leaders to define clean energy as only renewable energy in the national Clean Energy Standard that is a key pillar of the Biden program. They argue that carbon capture will give a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry, in particular, natural gas, and extend the burden on communities who live close to polluters, which are disproportionately communities of color. 

“Any compromise that one makes for gas is truly going to be felt by actual communities of color on the ground,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice Program, which helped organize the letter. “It’s a real line in the sand they are drawing.”

To veterans of the 30-year battle to enact climate policy in the United States, the flaring of tension within the movement is a sign of how much work the Biden administration has to do to build trust in its ability to enact durable climate policy. 

“Because of our macro politics, swinging back and forth between Trump and Biden, it’s been like getting whiplash,” said Bob Perciacepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, who served as a top environmental official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. “What’s absent is enough of a sense of surety of the government policies that are going to make sure this happens—that zero emissions happens.”

Unless the administration does a better job of communicating how an all-of-the-above approach leads to decarbonization, and not to more delay, Perciacepe argues, it will continue to find itself in battles with the left over every element of that plan—carbon capture, nuclear, pipelines—even as it fights a right wing determined to preserve the fossil fuel status quo

The Opposition

The last major effort to pass climate legislation, in the first two years of President Barack Obama’s administration, died at least in part because of rifts within the Democratic party. In the Senate, at least a half-dozen moderate industrial state Democrats lobbied for the White House to drop the effort to advance House-passed legislation that would have set a “cap” on carbon emissions, while allowing polluters flexibility to meet their reductions through “trade” of government-issued credits. Meanwhile, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and other environmental groups on the left opposed the market-based proposal as too weak and full of give-aways to industry.  With Democrats divided and Republicans united against it, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid never brought legislation to the floor of the Senate, despite Democrats’ 51 to 49 advantage.

After Democrats lost the House in 2010, prospects for a climate bill evaporated and Obama pursued policy to cut greenhouse gases through regulatory action, efforts that were then stalled in the courts or reversed by Trump.

Much has changed in the last four years. The science now points to the need for deeper decarbonization than Obama ever contemplated, and the price of renewable energy has plummeted, putting affordable carbon-free electricity more within reach.

With the Senate evenly divided and the partisan split over climate wider than ever, however, there’s anxiety within the climate movement over the Biden administration’s ability to hold Democrats together and to win at least some Republican support. Last week, members of the Green New Deal Network, including the Sierra Club and the youth-led Sunrise Movement, held an emergency rally in front of the White House, urging the administration not to make deals with Republicans that would weaken its climate plan.

White House Special Climate Envoy John Kerry inadvertently laid bare some of the conflict earlier this month, while attempting to communicate the Biden administration’s long-term strategy.

In an interview with the BBC, Kerry deflected difficult questions about the specific steps needed to meet the administration’s ambitious carbon emissions targets (Phase out of coal power? Less meat consumption?) by remarking on the size of the challenge the world faces.

“I am told by scientists—not by anybody in politics, but by scientists—that 50 percent of the reductions we have to make…are going to come from technology that we don’t yet have,” Kerry said.

To many  activists—and climate scientists—it sounded like the administration was relying on a hope for mythical future technologies, in particular, the development of affordable and reliable carbon capture, instead of the massive deployment of renewable energy technology that already exists.

 “I spoke to Harry Potter and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!” tweeted teen activist Greta Thunberg. Climate scientist Michael Mann, of Pennsylvania State University, joined in on Twitter: “This is one trial balloon that needs to be popped.”

In the same interview, Kerry stressed that he was not arguing for delay: “I’m not going to join the pessimists who think we are sitting around waiting for some new technology,” he told the BBC. After the International Energy Agency released a report similarly stressing the need for future technology in its vision for a net-zero economy in 2050, Kerry pointed to it as affirming his point.

But what was striking about the net-zero pathway charted by the IEA—a conservative organization which receives some of its funding from the energy industry—was its conclusion that to avoid catastrophic global temperature increase, the world should immediately cease new oil and gas development and build no new coal-fired power plants.

The IEA acknowledged that in 2050, almost half of carbon emissions reductions will come from new technologies, but only after fossil fuel use was reduced to a fraction of where it stands today. At that point, the IEA foresees the need for technological breakthroughs to reduce remaining emissions in aviation, steel, cement and other hard-to-tackle sectors. But when asked to clarify the IEA’s short-term view, the agency’s chief modeler Laura Cozzi said, “We have all the technologies for emission reductions needed in [the] next 10 years.”

The Biden administration’s climate plan doesn’t spell out the specifics of how or where it plans to deploy solar or wind energy, but key is the establishment of a national Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Standard to spur private sector deployment.

Such a policy, similar to that already in place in 30 states, would require utilities to deliver an escalating percentage of their electricity from clean energy sources. Experts believe it would be a powerful driver for the deployment of renewable energy, because in most cases, it would be the cheapest way for power companies to meet their goals.

The Biden proposal is far more detailed about its plans for early-stage, clean fossil fuel technology, even though it represents a much smaller portion of the package. Those plans  include 10 carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities and 15 decarbonized hydrogen demonstration projects, as part of its clean energy investments in distressed and disadvantaged communities. The Biden administration has pledged to direct 40 percent of its investments in clean energy to such communities.

Advocates, however, argue that it sounds like the people who live in those places are getting dumped on—again.

“Folks who are living on the fence line with these chemical companies and refineries and these coal plants, they have a good understanding of what that means: ‘I have to somehow be sacrificed for unproven technology, while others may somehow get some benefits by having more renewable, clean energy technologies,’” said Robert Bullard, a pioneer of the environmental justice movement who is a professor at Texas Southern University and member of the White House environmental justice advisory council.

The advisory council on May 13 took a diametrically opposed position to that of the White House, voting to recommend that the energy investments in disadvantaged communities exclude carbon capture, hydrogen, nuclear and a number of other technologies and approaches the council viewed as potentially harmful.

An example that illustrates the dilemma for the Biden administration is Exxon Mobil’s proposal to create a $100 billion “carbon capture” hub on the Houston Ship Channel, a site with numerous petrochemical facilities that need to cut emissions. The location would allow for the storage of carbon in reservoirs beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Exxon is seeking federal support—possibly in the form of tax breaks—for a project it says will demonstrate the viability of carbon capture technology, as well as create tens of thousands of jobs.

But Bullard said it is a “textbook example” of the kind of project the environmental  justice council wants the Biden administration to avoid: one located near overwhelmingly black and Hispanic communities that for years have been coping with air pollution and accidental releases and already face elevated health risks. Bullard said the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing an experiment on these people’s backs. “If these companies want to do that, then they should spend their own money,” he said.

Harsh Political Realities

McCarthy, for her part, said the Biden administration will not ignore the concerns of environmental justice advocates, even as it pursues a plan that invests in solutions such as carbon capture.

“That doesn’t mean that he’s going to be blind to the conventional pollutants,” she said of Biden, at the Columbia energy summit. The conflict with environmental justice advocates,  “is going to be one of those issues that we’re going to have to work through,” McCarthy said.

One harsh reality the Biden administration is facing is that any portion of his climate agenda involving new programs or spending will have to get the votes of all 50 Democrats in the Senate, at the least. And the most difficult vote to hold will be that of West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, who is eager to maintain jobs in his coal state and has made clear that carbon capture is key to winning his support.

“If you want to help Mother Earth, you better advance carbon capture sequestration and utilization,” he said recently, at a National Press Club event. Manchin also sees carbon capture as an investment that could prolong the life of the coal industry. “I’m for innovation, not elimination,” he said.

Unions that endorsed Biden’s candidacy, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Steelworkers Union, are also strong supporters of investment in carbon capture. And Democrats will need union support heading into next year, as they battle to hold on to the House and Senate.

“The underlying problem is that Democrats have to win elections or nothing at all will happen,” said Theda Skocpol, a professor of government at Harvard, who has analyzed past Democratic failures to pass climate policy.

 “Biden has to carry states where left progressive goals are killers,” she said. “He is stressing jobs with green energy investments and needs to downplay pure anti-carbon goals until energy transitions are further along.”

Bledsoe said he believes the Biden approach is to try to craft a clean energy agenda that is economically powerful, so that it can be politically popular and withstand future elections.

“What they’re proposing is not what will pass ideological litmus tests, but what I think is the most ambitious approach that can get 50 votes,” Bledsoe said. “That’s the bottom line—really nothing else matters.”

But the Biden administration also faces political risk if it is seen as overlooking the concerns of the black community, which turned out in record numbers in 2020, helping lift Biden to victory.

A Challenge Ahead

Despite the conflicts, mainstream environmental groups by and large are in line with the Biden administration’s message, arguing that overall, the plan will address the concerns of distressed communities and workers while driving down carbon pollution.

“We think the debate should be about how do we quadruple the deployment of renewables in this country every year, and do that for the next 10 years,” said Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “That’s the challenge ahead of us, and where we’re trying to stay focused.”

LCV is one of 150 environmental groups that signed on to a separate letter to Congress, urging passage of a strong Clean Energy Standard as the way to achieve that goal.

Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, has researched divisions across the political spectrum on climate change. He said he believes that the Biden administration still can bridge the gaps between different segments of its constituency, even if it makes investments in technology like carbon capture. But, he added, the administration will succeed only if it can show that those investments are part of an aggressive drive away from coal, oil, and natural gas, and won’t prolong dependence on fossil fuels.

“My sense is that the left won’t walk away from their support of the administration’s efforts as long as they see a full-throated effort to implement the solutions that we have in hand today as quickly as possible,” Maibach said.