U.S. climate policy hung a U-turn yesterday, with President Biden using his Inauguration Day to launch a domestic and international response to climate change that is diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor.
The new administration marked the day by rejoining the Paris climate agreement, revoking the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s federal permit and pledging to “review” a laundry list of Trump administration regulatory actions aimed at propping up high-emitting industries.
The breadth of day one actions on climate change is in line with Biden’s promise that the issue would be a top-tier priority for this administration, along with inequality, systematic racism and the coronavirus pandemic.
After an inaugural address in which Biden pledged to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” his State Department sent the necessary paperwork to the Paris Agreement.
The U.S. will rejoin the deal on Feb. 19—107 days after it withdrew.
The new administration in a press statement promised to “exercise global leadership” in advancing Paris’ objectives. That said, the U.S. still must formulate a 2030 pledge that tracks with the Paris objective of containing warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” with efforts at a 1.5 C limit.
Experts say a 50% reduction below 2005 emissions levels would achieve that goal—a heavy lift for a country whose emissions reductions have stalled in recent years.
Slim Democratic majorities in Congress mean the Biden team is likely to rely on state and local partners to help demonstrate emissions cuts, indicating a consultation process that could last months.
“To inject momentum into the collective task of accelerating decarbonization around the world, it will be important for the U.S. to send a strong signal of the pathway it intends to pursue as soon as possible,” said Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, senior director of international climate cooperation for the World Wildlife Fund.
She added that it could mean releasing a full Paris commitment in the near future or just a set of top-line numbers.
The Biden administration also used its first day to yank a Trump administration permit for TC Energy Corp.’s controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would have carried crude from the Alberta oil fields to Gulf of Mexico refineries.
The cross-border pipeline has been a lightning rod for 12 years, with activists arguing that the environmentally damaging and high-carbon oil from the tar sands industry couldn’t grow without new conduits to move the oil to market.
President Obama denied the project a permit in 2015 on environmental grounds, but Trump granted one two years later. A tiny segment of pipeline has been built in the United States. But, while litigation over the pipeline may continue, Biden’s decision to revoke its permit means its chances of being built are significantly diminished.
“It’s a decision of both enormous symbolic and substantive impact,” said Anthony Swift, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada program.
The decadelong battle around Keystone has discouraged multinational oil companies from investing in what environmentalists call the tar sands.
“Keystone XL was a project that would support the expansion production of one of the dirtiest sources of oil in the world at a time when climate science was clear we needed to transition away from fossil fuels,” said Swift, noting that the pipeline would have supported new production beyond 2050—when the Paris Agreement envisions the world weaning itself off oil.
“I’ve never seen a credible effort to show that tar sands expansion was consistent with a global market consistent with 1.5 C,” he said.
But Biden’s decision leaves the Canadian province of Alberta with more than $1 billion in taxpayer losses at a time when the new president is seeking to reset relationships with U.S. allies. And GOP lawmakers claimed that yesterday’s decision would cost jobs on both sides of the border.
“President-elect Biden’s actions will not end our need for oil from our strongest ally, Canada. Instead, it will cost jobs, result in more shipments of oil by rail and make America even more vulnerable to OPEC and foreign adversaries, like Russia,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) in a statement.
The Biden administration has telegraphed its plans to reverse four years of deregulatory and anti-science policymaking at EPA. And before yesterday’s swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol, the Biden team circulated a hit list of agency actions slated for “review,” including at EPA.
These include the Trump EPA’s eleventh-hour effort to make future greenhouse gas regulations contingent on a sector contributing at least 3% of overall U.S. emissions (Climatewire, Jan. 13).
EPA promulgated the rule last week in lieu of a long-awaited revision to an Obama-era rule for new coal-fired power plants. And it doesn’t take effect until March—a fact that makes it vulnerable to the Biden administration’s freeze order for last-minute Trump administration rulemakings.
Also up for review is the 2019 rule repealing and replacing Obama’s flagship Clean Power Plan for existing power plants.
The Biden EPA long has been expected to scrap the Trump-era rule and replace it with an update that can help achieve the new president’s goal of making the U.S. power grid carbon neutral by 2035.
But Tuesday’s decision by a federal court to throw out the Trump rule greases the skids by allowing EPA to return to the drawing board to decide how power plants should be regulated.
Provided the Supreme Court doesn’t decide to take up the case—which legal experts say is unlikely—Biden’s EPA can now focus on constructing a replacement. And this week’s decision provides EPA with certainty that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, at least, rejects the argument that EPA can’t use the Clean Air Act to compel fuel switching from coal to less-emitting fuel sources, like renewable energy (Climatewire, Jan. 20).
A conservative Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on that issue, said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University Law School.
He noted that a Biden EPA would have to bear that in mind when constructing a new rule.
“The rule that the Biden administration will write will be written against the backdrop of some prediction of not just what the D.C. Circuit would do, of which we now have a fairly good sense, but also what the Supreme Court could do, which we don’t know,” he said.
Also on the agenda were a pair of EPA regulations finalized last year that would limit the way oil and gas leakage is regulated. The rules apply to new facilities only but are designed to make it harder for a subsequent administration to regulate older, leaky infrastructure for methane—a powerful greenhouse gas many times more damaging to the climate than carbon in the short term.
The list also included EPA’s recently finalized greenhouse gas rule for airplanes, as well as the Transportation Department’s revision of fuel economy rules for vehicles. EPA under Biden is likely to reinstate joint standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions.
Social cost of carbon
The Biden administration also announced plans yesterday to reestablish the Obama-era interagency process that developed and maintained the social cost of carbon and methane.
Those metrics assign monetized value to each ton of CO2 emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere and are used in cost-benefit analyses for regulations and other government actions.
The Biden memo announced the upcoming release of “an interim social cost of greenhouse gas schedule to ensure that agencies account for the full costs of greenhouse gas emissions, including climate risk, environmental justice and intergenerational equity.”
Environmental justice, which considers the disproportionate impacts to low-income communities and people of color from climate change or environmental degradation, was not part of the Obama process.
Michael Greenstone, an environmental economist who co-led that process, released a paper last week with Tamma Carleton of the University of California, Santa Barbara, proposing updates to the Obama administration’s formula, including ways to incorporate environmental justice (Climatewire, Jan. 14).
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.