Throughout the campaign, transition, and the first working days at the White House, addressing climate change remained a top priority for Joe Biden. But the success of his ambitious climate plan will depend on implementation by a team across various governmental bodies. A starting point to understanding what to expect from a Biden White House is to look in more detail at the appointments he has made and how this will impact the work of the key federal bodies.
The key figures on President Biden’s climate team
The members of President Biden’s new climate team are well-qualified and set several new and significant diversity landmarks. They also appear to have satisfied both the climate activist community as well as mainstream Democrats.
Congressional representative Deb Haaland from New Mexico will become the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Michael Regan, currently the head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be the first African American head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
As many expected, Biden has looked to add former Obama alumni to his team. These include former Obama EPA head Gina McCarthy, who will fill a newly created role as White House National Climate Advisor as well as Ali Zaidi and Brenda Mallory, who both held climate and energy roles in the Obama administration. Zaidi will be McCarthy’s deputy and Mallory will Chair the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.
Rounding out the key appointments are former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who has been nominated as Secretary of Energy, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, whose appointment as US Presidential Special Envoy on Climate was announced in late November. An additional member of the team is former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who will serve as Transportation Secretary. This could be an important climate role if the administration looks to reduce emissions from the transport sector.
Initial reactions to these appointments have been relatively positive, which is helped by the fact that the nominees all have experience as elected government officials or in senior White House and state-based energy and climate positions. There will, of course, be Republican pushback to President Biden’s nominees but with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, the confirmation of Granholm, Regan, Haaland and Mallory are unlikely to proceed with drama. Green New Deal (GND) progressives will likely only object if they perceive a lack of ambition from the new team. Such progressives will be especially keen to see a strong environmental justice emphasis.
If President Biden is able to confirm this new team, then there will still an enormous amount of work to be done. The Biden administration wants the United States to have a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035 and national emissions be net zero by 2050. Doing so will require significant collaboration and coordination across a range of government bodies.
Department of the Interior (DOI)
The symbolism of Secretary Haaland’s appointment has been widely recognised and applauded as long overdue. In terms of climate action, expect to see a Haaland-led DOI significantly restrict fossil fuel extraction, including fracking, on federal lands. Federal land, predominantly western states like Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming, is responsible for about 26 per cent of the nation’s oil production and 13 per cent of its gas so DOI action won’t stop domestic fossil fuel extraction but it will have a meaningful impact. It should be noted that if existing leases for fracking (which have already been paid for) can continue, then the impact of changes to leasing will be gradual rather than immediate. Outside of this, Secretary Haaland could become fully occupied with the politics of being the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, which, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), is accountable for federal relations with the Native Americans and tribal entities. In addition to confronting numerous historic grievances, Secretary Haaland may need to address the concerns of tribes such as the Navajo and the Crow whose significant, federally-controlled fossil fuel assets will have been rendered valueless if the DOI bans extraction on federal lands.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
In the view of the Biden administration, the EPA will need revitalising after four years of the Trump administration’s rolling back of environmental regulations. New EPA head Regan has environmental regulatory experience in North Carolina, which will help him as well as McCarthy and Mallory — both of whom are EPA alumni from the Obama administration. The EPA’s first work will be to support recent executive actions by President Biden which cancelled the Keystone pipeline permits and reinstated efficiency standards for appliances and light vehicles.
More broadly, the question remains as to whether the EPA will be used as the lead agency for Biden’s climate agenda — as was the case in the Obama administration — or if the load is spread across other departments and agencies. The rationale for a less EPA-centric approach includes significant changes in the climate landscape that have occurred since 2016. Wind and solar generation is now cheap enough that simple economics rather than regulatory pressure is closing coal plants. This does not mean coal will get a free ride but with power sector emissions down 33 per cent from their peak in 2007 and falling fast there are now higher priority areas. An EPA that focuses on regulatory compliance with a special emphasis on revisiting community exposures in heavily industrialised areas is a potential outcome which should please the progressive Green New Deal supporters.
National Climate Advisor
One dynamic that climate observers will be closely watching are the duties of the newly created Nation Climate Advisor role. Early commentary suggests it will co-ordinate climate activities across the different federal government departments. This function has historically been done by the Council on Environmental Quality so, if duplication of responsibilities is to be avoided, some realignment may be needed. One possible division of labour is to separate functions like technology development, investment incentives, and R&D support from more litigious activities associated with enforcing existing regulations and developing the legal foundation for new ones. Brenda Mallory who is currently with the Southern Environmental Law Center and also served as General Counsel with the Council on Environmental Quality is very well credentialled for the latter while Ali Zaidi’s background in the DOE and the White House Office of Budget and Management (OMB) seems ideally suited for the former.
Department of Energy (DOE)
The appointment of Governor Jennifer Granholm to head the DOE has prompted some speculation that the Biden administration will prioritise electrification of the light vehicle transport system. This is based in part on a belief that Granholm’s Michigan experience with the automotive industry will provide a useful base for this work. It also reflects the fact that while power-sector emissions are steadily declining, those from the transportation sector are higher than they were 20 years ago and now represent the largest source of US carbon emissions. The nation cannot get to net zero without an urgent roll-out of electric vehicles. The DOE has a well-developed infrastructure to contract and manage research into battery storage and charging infrastructure to support this rollout. Also supportive of an EV-led agenda are the 1,066 US mayors who have signed the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. Many cities have struggled to meet climate targets, especially when faced with a hostile state administration. Federal support to meet these goals is likely to be welcomed, particularly if it also offers the potential for improved air quality and reduced traffic congestion. Given that the Department of Transport has accountabilities that cover federal highways as well as regulating national rail, marine and air traffic, there may be a role for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg if the White House prioritises support and funding to local governments for zero-emissions public transport and infrastructure.
Presidential Envoy for Climate
Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s role seems to be clear: to lead the US re-engagement with the international climate community and reclaim a leadership position. To achieve this, the United States needs to put its own decarbonisation house in order and encourage its enormous technical capability to focus on climate innovation. Development of improved battery-storage technologies, the use of hydrogen, direct air capture, sequestration and strategies suitable for developing countries are examples of where the United States could recapture lost prestige. This would be much more of a DOE-led agenda rather than an EPA regulation-based approach.
Beyond the personalities and offices
President Biden has passed his first climate hurdle by meeting diversity and inclusion expectations with experienced and qualified climate candidates. The next set of hurdles will involve navigating Republican opposition, which has historically sought to restrict funding and promote arguments critical of federal government intervention in how energy is generated and what sort of cars Americans are allowed to drive. There will also likely be intense scrutiny from the climate community that demands not just climate action but systemic changes in how energy-producing and consuming industries impact local communities and the financially disadvantaged.
President Biden’s team will need to be flexible and innovative as critics will be ready if he simply retools the Obama administration’s environmental playbook. While there will undoubtedly be Republican critics, there are also progressives who are retrospectively critical of the lack of achievement during the Obama years. A key question is whether the Biden climate team’s experience is a positive or a net negative. The latter will be the case if they are unable to both identify the leverage points created by a rapidly changing decarbonisation technology landscape and find pathways to bypass Congressional opposition. Past links to powerful environmental non-governmental organisations like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council could equally represent a mixed blessing. Key climate roles throughout the federal administration will no doubt be filled by alumni of these and other non-governmental organisations. While this ensures they will be experienced, committed and knowledgeable, President Biden will need to manage the potential for too much internecine conflict based on differing views on climate priorities.
The year ahead will be tough for the new administration as time, resources and energy will be devoted to overcoming COVID and successfully rolling out vaccines. Beyond rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, making climate a high priority necessitates real action: a zero-carbon power grid by 2035 and net zero by 2050 requires significant technology development and massive investment in physical assets. To achieve success on this front, the Biden administration will need to move past old battlefields, like keeping coal in the ground and focus on next-generation issues, like developing grid-scale storage, promoting electrification of the transport and industrial sectors as well as starting to wean the nation off fracked natural gas while also moving on agricultural emissions.