Week Ending November 13, 2020

Biden Eyes Climate Change as a Priority, With Georgia Senate Races Undecided

This Article Appears as Published in Foster Report No 3324
Biden Eyes Climate Change as a Priority, With Georgia Senate Races Undecided

Positioning on clean energy matters is in full swing in Washington, with advocates of renewable resources and fossil fuels congratulating President-elect Joe Biden and vowing to work with a new administration on energy issues.

While environmental groups and renewable resource advocates held media calls and discussed the welcome change from the Trump administration, oil and natural gas groups issued statements congratulating Biden and appeared to be waiting for policy signals from an incoming administration.

Wasting little time since taking the lead in key state votes and then being projected to win the election, the team around Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris updated a website and social media platforms that list climate change as one of the priorities of a new administration. The other three priorities listed are the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, and racial equity.

The website includes links for the priorities and says the transition team being assembled is focused on building infrastructure and planning for the next administration. The transition will focus on core values of diversity of ideology and background, talent to address society’s challenges, integrity and ethical standards, and transparency to garner trust.

The moves from the team assembled by Biden and Harris are taking place while President Donald Trump has no plans to concede the election and continues legal fights on voting results. Trump has posted media messages on Twitter questioning the election results and allegations of voter fraud.

Trump also removed the top official that has led the federal government’s National Climate Assessment, Michael Kuperberg, and replaced him with David Legates, a recent appointee at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has expressed skeptical views on climate change.

The move was criticized by Democrats on Capitol Hill and others who noted that the assessment document, which Trump downplayed in 2018, is designed by Congress to be a nonpartisan review. “This last-ditch effort to deny climate change is not going to work, given what voters have decided,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

A Biden administration may have a Republican majority in the Senate, as the two Senate seats in Georgia are headed for a run-off election in January and races in North Carolina and Alaska went to Republican senators being re-elected. Results as of November 12 have Republicans with 50 Senate seats, Democrats with 46 and two Independents, Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who caucus with Democrats.

If Republicans retain a majority in the Senate, beyond the tie-breaking vote of a vice president, agency actions and regulatory measures under a Biden administration will become more important for carrying out any clean energy plans, officials said. A Democrat as chairman at FERC could be viewed as key for achieving some climate goals, said Christine Wyman, senior principal at the Policy Resolution Group at Bracewell LLP.

During a November 9 media call, officials with the World Resources Institute (WRI) picked up on that theme, noting that federal action on climate change will be more difficult – but not a lost cause – if Republicans continue to hold a majority in the Senate. With four years of inaction by the Trump administration on climate change, states and cities have taken the lead and a Biden administration can lend a helping hand while playing catch-up on items such as rejoining the Paris climate agreement, said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI.

Clean energy investments and emissions reduction are “where the smart money is heading,” said Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics at WRI. A Biden administration “will have a short honeymoon” because it has a lot of work to do make gains on climate action, Mountford said. For the U.S. to rejoin the Paris accord, it will have to come up with a plan to lower emissions, and WRI is suggesting a target of 45-50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

A 50% reduction target is achievable, but the lower end of the range suggested by WRI is included to address uncertainty in Congress, and the Senate in particular, said Dan Lashof, director of the U.S. at WRI. With the vote count and exit polls showing support for action on climate change, Biden “has a mandate” to implement a platform, Lashof said.

Beyond undoing the environmental rollbacks of the Trump administration, Biden should focus on a small number of high-impact measures for his domestic agenda on climate change, Lashof said.

Although there are skeptics of a Republican Senate working with a Biden administration on aggressive measures around climate change, there are less controversial steps on electric vehicle charging infrastructure, rejoining the Paris climate accord and market solutions around carbon pricing that can gain support from GOP members, speakers said during a November 12 event. The divided government scenario that appears to be setting up does not mean only minor measures can accomplished, officials said during the Powering Forward webinar held by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and the Clean Energy Business Network.

Without Trump posting statements on Twitter every day, Republicans in the Senate will be able to express their views without their first thought being how it will be interpreted by the White House, said John Hart, co-founder and vice president at Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions (C3 Solutions).

There will also be positioning among Republicans on who has the best message on climate for a 2024 presidential race, Hart said. “I’m hopeful it leads to a lot of solutions being advanced,” he said.

With a Republican majority in the Senate, a smaller Democrat majority in the House of Representatives and Biden in the White House, federal policies should focus on what is working well and what can be improved without major changes, suggested Charles Hernick, vice president of policy and advocacy at the Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum. New licenses for dams that are not producing hydropower to generate electricity and better coordination on siting transmission lines, including from offshore wind power projects, were two steps Hernick pointed out.

Regardless of the outcome of the Georgia Senate rates, neither party will have 60 votes in the Senate to move aggressive items for their political base, and Democrats in energy producing states may differ from their colleagues on certain climate and clean energy matters, said Karen Wayland, principal at KW Energy Strategies. As others have said since the election, Wayland commented that if there is anyone in the White House who could navigate tough political paths in the Senate, it is Joe Biden.

FERC’s role will be important, especially on carbon pricing, where Commissioner Neil Chatterjee has encouraged market-based solutions, Wayland said.

Rulemakings at agencies and executive orders from the White House could be used to support clean energy measures and technology innovations, added Nidhi Thakar, co-chair of Clean Energy for Biden and director of strategy at Portland General Electric. The business community has a need for consistent regulations, and cooperation between federal and state policymakers will be extremely important no matter who controls the Senate, Thakar said.

While Congress may be split between a Democrat majority in the House and a Republican majority in the Senate, there is some bipartisan support for certain clean energy measures, including infrastructure investments to improve the power grid and planting trees to aid controlling carbon dioxide, Lashof of WRI noted.

Outside of Congress, executive orders using existing authority at agencies could build on steps taken by former President Barack Obama, Lashof and others said.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who is retiring and will no longer be the Republican leader on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said House Democrats should take Republican gains in the House “as a warning. The American people are watching, and socialist policies have not place in the United States of America.”

Walden said the “radical agenda” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been rejected by the American people. He expressed hope “that we can return to working across the aisle and renew, rebuild and restore our great country.”

A Biden administration faces challenges beyond what is being seen with a transition process hampered by Trump while legal challenges to the election play out. An incoming administration faces the risk of future rollbacks and there has been an increasingly wide array of methods used to undo regulatory actions, noted the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law.

Given that agency rules can take years to become final, the threat of rollbacks by Congress or a future administration poses a threat at the beginning of a presidential term, authors Bethany Davis Noll and Natalie Jacewicz wrote in an August paper “A Roadmap to Regulatory Strategy in an Era of Hyper-Partisanship.” The paper’s advice includes halting work on pending regulations before inauguration day, prioritizing items for repeal if desired, preparing to fill agency positions that need Senate confirmation and developing priorities at each agency.

The Biden/Harris website statement on climate change advocates putting the U.S. on a path to achieve net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. It follows presidential campaign messaging about the opportunity to create jobs for a cleaner economy, and how Biden will stand along allies, stand up to adversaries and level with any world leader about what must be done to address climate change.

The transition team goal is to have the power sector be carbon free by 2035, with measures for transportation, building efficiency and environmental justice as well. “President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris know we can’t simply go back to the way things were before. The team being assembled will meet these challenges on Day One and build us back better,” according to the website.

Within the energy sector, all kinds of groups congratulated Biden and Harris and vowed to work with an incoming Biden administration. The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, American Council on Renewable Energy, Natural Gas Supply Association, Center for LNG and many others expressed a desire to work with a Biden administration to address energy issues. Fossil fuel groups noted how natural gas is a growing part of the power generation sector and has led to emission reductions.

“We congratulate President-elect Biden and look forward to working with him, his Administration and the new Congress to ensure that natural gas continues to be a clean energy leader, helping to reduce overall emissions here and around the world,” NGSA and the Center for LNG said in a joint statement.

By Tom Tiernan ttiernan@fosterreport.com

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