Joe Biden has pledged unprecedented action on climate change and clean energy. What might he actually get done?
Any candidate running for president has a priority list, both public and internal, laying out what their administration hopes to accomplish in its first days and months.
For his part, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has laid out an extensive list of priorities for his first day, including rolling back Trump-era tax cuts, beginning implementation of a national pandemic strategy and moving forward with a task force on housing as a human right. In the clean energy and climate arena, Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, ink a “series of new executive orders” that surpasses the climate ambition of the Obama-Biden administration, and much more.
Biden’s list of policies is gargantuan compared to the time he’ll have for actual policymaking on day one. But environmental advocates and clean-energy boosters don’t expect a Biden administration to shunt energy and climate issues to the sidelines, even in a pandemic.
“I don’t think climate can be pushed off the plate in the same way as it has been in the past,” said Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative, a group focused on achieving democratic renewal by tackling inequality.
We asked clean-energy experts and advocates what’s most likely to get done in the first 100 days of a Biden presidency.
Action from the executive branch
Due to uncertainty regarding what the makeup of Congress will look like after the election, the Biden campaign has already emphasized the potential for executive action to move its climate plans forward.
The Biden administration is likely to incorporate lessons learned during the late Obama years. In 2010, Republicans claimed control of the House of Representatives and the party threw up barriers to the administration’s legislative priorities, said Brandon Hurlbut, who worked as chief of staff in the Department of Energy during that administration and went on to co-found consultancy Boundary Stone Partners.
“The Biden team has a lot of experience; many of those folks served in the Obama-Biden administration, and they know how to use executive authority to advance the agenda,” said Hurlbut.
The Trump administration has also leaned heavily on executive orders, noted Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in an August report on how Biden could reenact regulations. That means a future president could reverse many Trump-era environmental rollbacks through executive action.
But even before Biden — if elected — officially takes office, the administration will be staffing up. That presents an opportunity to realign departments with climate and clean energy goals.
Trump filled out his administration’s ranks with oil and gas boosters like former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and one-time ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
Making good on promises to prioritize climate, said Bozuwa, will mean that Biden should avoid appointing people with ties to fossil fuels, utilities or others with a history of lagging on climate action. Biden is already facing pressure from donors to eschew those types of appointments, including some who worked in the Obama administration.
Carla Frisch, who worked in the Department of Energy under the Obama and Trump administrations and now works with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Cities and States initiative, hopes the Biden administration would focus attention throughout departments, filling in the ranks of career employees and “lifting up that talent” that has left the federal government in recent years.
Biden may also have the opportunity to add commissioners to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency that over the next several years will guide federal regulations governing renewables in wholesale electricity markets. Two Trump nominees, a Republican and a Democrat, are awaiting confirmation to sit on the commission, but it’s unclear if the Senate will take action before the next presidential term begins. If those confirmations do move forward, it would mean a Republican majority will lead the commission for years to come. But Biden will still have the authority to choose a new chair for the commission, a position currently occupied by Republican Neil Chatterjee.
The former vice president has also touted plans to shift federal energy procurement standards to focus on clean energy if he takes the White House. Trump reversed Obama-era directives to the federal government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent over a decade. Biden could bring that effort back and even strengthen it.
The federal government is the nation’s largest employer. The General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal government property, is the largest public real-estate organization in the country, with 354 million square feet of office space under management. Pushing clean-energy policy forward within the government would be helped by the fact that there’s already precedent for cleaning up those spaces: GSA received billions of dollars in funding for energy efficiency and building upgrades under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Obama and Biden helped steer.
Another part of that 2009 law may come into play early in a Biden administration: loan programs under the Department of Energy that offer up funding for clean-energy research, manufacturing and projects. Though Congress has continued to increase DOE funding through the Trump presidency, the department has slow-rolled the disbursement of funds for energy efficiency and renewables. That could mean a windfall will be unleashed if Biden enters the office, money that could serve as a down payment of sorts for Biden’s Build Back Better plan, said Hurlbut, even in the absence of congressional support.
The executive office also enjoys wide latitude on trade. President Trump has leveraged that to tariff imported solar cells and modules. Depending on what action the U.S. Trade Representative pursues in response to an October proclamation from Trump wherein the president floated an extension of the tariffs, Biden may be able to alter those duties.
Of course, Biden could go even further. Progressives have assembled a 10-point, 10-day, sans-Congress plan calling for the administration to declare a national climate emergency and use the Clean Air Act to set a nationwide cap on pollution, among other proposals.
As President Obama’s struggles with the Clean Power Plan show, however, executive action can be legally challenged. To secure more lasting change, a President Biden would have to win over Congress.
What if Congress wants to help?
With support from federal lawmakers, changes under a President Biden could be more sweeping. While bipartisan backing for climate action is growing, Republicans on Capitol Hill remain resistant to wide-reaching policies. But clean energy has long enjoyed support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Regardless of whether Democrats win back the Senate in November, thus creating the potential for more significant climate legislation, Biden may be able to sign on both parties to certain clean energy initiatives, such as an extension of tax credits or research and development programs. Biden advocates often point to the former vice president’s history of working across the aisle.
“My former boss has a well-established record of bringing people together (in Congress) to get big things done,” said Kerry Duggan, a sustainability consultant and Biden adviser who served on the Biden-Sanders climate task force, in an email.
It will most likely be that track record of cooperation that helps Biden get any type of clean energy support passed that is tied to broader stimulus efforts, which will be an early priority of any presidential administration, as uncertainty abounds in current talks.
Biden has been “very clear” in connecting economic and clean energy priorities, said Boundary Stone’s Hurlbut, suggesting that Biden might work with Congress on something similar to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act if elected.
“I saw firsthand Vice President Biden leading the Recovery Act, where we invested $90 billion into clean energy,” Hurlbut told Greentech Media. “He witnessed firsthand that those investments had a major positive impact on the economy.”
Passing anything more ambitious, such as a nationwide clean electricity standard or a policy of decarbonization by 2050, will almost certainly rely on the makeup of Congress after the election. The potential confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could also threaten some climate policies if they face legal challenges.
Either way, Frisch, who now works with corporations and subnational governments on efforts around continuing climate ambition amid a lack of federal leadership, emphasized that action will have to come from a variety of avenues in order to effectively confront the climate crisis.
“It will take a lot of different types of action, including executive action, including the regulatory processes and hopefully new legislation,” said Frisch.