President Joe Biden has largely delivered on his campaign promise to make curbing climate change a top priority, delighting liberals but irking Republicans who expected a more centrist course given the deal-making profile he cast as a senator.
“Joe Biden’s first 100 days have been about promises made, promises kept. If I am an environmentalist, you have to give him high grades,” said Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Group and former oil official in the George W. Bush administration.
On his first day in office, Biden started the process of reinserting the United States into the Paris Agreement, undoing a signature move of former President Donald Trump, who exited the global climate pact.
Biden underscored the U.S. return to international climate diplomacy by hosting a global summit event last month in which he unveiled a strengthened pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, a target that, if fulfilled, would require fundamentally transforming the country’s fossil fuel-based economy.
The liberal climate advocacy group Evergreen Action has charted that Biden has already taken “meaningful action” on nearly three-quarters of 46 campaign climate commitments using executive authorities. That includes starting the process of imposing direct regulation of a potent greenhouse gas, methane, from oil and gas operations, pushing major banks and asset managers to invest in clean energy, and boosting procurement of zero-emissions vehicles for the federal government fleet.
“What they have done so far is lay a great foundation, but more work has to be done,” said Becca Ellison, Evergreen’s deputy policy director.
For Biden to achieve his emission targets, experts and advocates say he must pass his $2.3 trillion infrastructure spending package, a legislative proposal that includes massive spending to deploy clean energy, subsidize electric vehicle purchases, and mandate utilities use 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035.
“The American Jobs Plan is essential,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of environmental politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Biden’s policy approach so far embraces a new breed of climate industrial policy favored by liberals that links public investment and regulations to job creation, using the federal government as the primary engine to steer the development of new industries, as opposed to market-based mechanisms such as carbon pricing.
He is vowing not just to rebuild roads and bridges but also to spur development of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, energy-efficient homes and buildings, and power grid transmission lines while creating a domestic manufacturing supply chain of components to build them.
“There is a lot of trust buildup that the Biden administration is taking the climate crisis seriously and really sees clean energy as path to job creation and economic recovery,” Stokes said.
But Biden will be challenged to appease the sometimes competing demands of unions and environmentalists, two key political constituencies, as his big ideas get turned into legislation.
Clean energy industry lobby groups worry a greater emphasis on domestic manufacturing and a related focus on unionizing jobs could make renewables more expensive, given a lot of key technologies are imported cheaply from places such as China.
Abigail Hopper, the Solar Energy Industries Association’s president and CEO, recently told the Washington Examiner it isn’t a “binary choice” that a job “either has to be union or it’s bad.” She noted that the solar industry offers “good-paying, family-supporting jobs” even if they aren’t unionized.
Biden also faces hard choices to maintain the support of pro-fossil fuel Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a key swing voter in the split Senate.
Biden’s infrastructure proposal includes measures to assist fossil fuel-dependent regions vulnerable to Biden’s clean energy push, in an appeal to unions irked by the president’s early moves to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline and ban the issuance of new oil and gas leases on public lands.
But he risks underdelivering on his vow to create millions of high-paying union jobs in clean energy across the country while providing financial assistance and benefits to support fossil fuel-dependent regions.
“There is an intrinsic conflict between union fossil fuel jobs of today and green jobs of tomorrow,” said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy, a research group, adding that the wage gap between those industries is not “trivial.”
Biden’s aggressive approach to addressing climate change has prompted the oil and gas industry to shift some of its positions, including endorsing carbon pricing and regulation of methane, in order to have a seat at the table in shaping legislation and regulations.
McNally said businesses are watching whether Biden gravitates to a bipartisan approach as his infrastructure bill moves through Congress or whether he continues to appease liberals pushing him to use a potentially narrow window of power before the 2022 midterm elections to go big on green policies.
“Industry has no choice but to engage with the powers of the day, but on the other hand, folks look at Joe Biden and see a moderate,” McNally said. “The question they are asking themselves is, ‘Has he been completely captured by the progressive wing?'”