After signing climate bill, Biden prepares more actions to cut emissions
By Lisa Friedman and Jim Tankersley
Fresh off signing expansive climate legislation, President Joe Biden and his administration are planning a series of executive actions to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help keep the planet from warming to dangerous temperatures, senior White House officials said.
Biden is on track to deploy a series of measures, including new regulations on emissions from vehicle tailpipes, power plants and oil and gas wells, the officials said.
In pushing more executive action, Biden is trying to make up for the compromises his party made on climate measures to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes the largest single U.S. investment to slow global warming. Democrats had to scale back some of their loftiest ambitions, including by agreeing to fossil fuel and drilling provisions, as concessions to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a holdout from a conservative state that is heavily dependent on coal and gas.
Gina McCarthy, the White House climate adviser, said that regulatory moves, combined with the new legislation and action from states, could help Biden meet his promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, compared to 2005 levels, by the end of the decade.
The climate bill, she said, was “a starting point.”
“The president has not chosen to just look at Congress; he’s chosen to recognize that he has presidential authorities and responsibilities under the law to keep moving this forward,” she said. “And he’s going to continue to use those.”
Biden promised an aggressive set of executive actions to cut emissions as recently as last month, when it appeared the climate bill had stalled in the Senate. But even now that the bill has been revived and passed, several administration officials say he has not ruled out taking any of those unilateral moves.
The move toward executive action comes less than two months after the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The vote was 6-3, with the court’s liberal justices in dissent, saying that the majority had stripped from the EPA “the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”
The ruling curtailed but did not eliminate the agency’s ability to regulate the energy sector, and the agency may still require measures like emission controls at individual power plants. But the court ruled out more ambitious approaches, like requiring utilities to switch from coal to wind or solar power.
EPA officials have said they are working to develop a new rule for coal-fired power plants as well as gas plants that will conform with the Supreme Court’s mandate but have released no details about how the new policies would work.
McCarthy noted the EPA still has “broad authority” to regulate emissions from electricity generation. She also said the government is forging ahead with new regulations on soot and other traditional air pollutants, which will have the side benefit of cutting carbon emissions.
Any executive actions are certain to be challenged in court by conservative attorneys general who have argued the Biden administration has overstepped its authority on climate change.
The new law includes about $370 billion in incentives for electric utilities to increase their reliance on low-emission energy sources like solar and nuclear, for consumers to buy electric vehicles and for businesses to invest in energy efficiency. They were the product of a last-minute deal struck by Manchin and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader.
Energy experts project the law will help draw down about 40% of U.S. emissions from 2005 levels, closing in on, but not reaching, Biden’s goals on its own.
But administration officials believe they have sufficient executive power available to fill the gap.
Biden has the executive authority to issue regulations through federal agencies, and under the Clean Air Act of 1970 can establish rules to address air pollution. But unlike legislation, those rules can be easily undone by a future administration.
President Donald Trump, for example, rolled back more than 100 of President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations.
In addition to the power plant rules, McCarthy listed a broad range of areas where executive agencies are preparing action on climate.
The EPA has been working to regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas that spews from oil and natural gas operations and can warm the atmosphere 80 times as fast as carbon dioxide in the short term. That rule is expected to be finalized later this year. A separate regulation to curb vehicle tailpipe emissions could be issued next year.
Officials expect the new law will help companies comply with new regulations at low or no cost by giving them tax incentives to reduce emissions. That, she said, will lead emissions to drop well beyond the levels analysts are currently estimating.
“I have no question that they’ll go further and farther, because they will make money on this,” she said of the private sector.
Climate activists have called on Biden to keep pushing for new ways to curb global warming.
“We are planning for how Biden can use the rest of his 2 1/2 years in office potentially even more to use the full extent of his executive authority,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group.
Beyond issuing new rules, she said activists also still hope to see Biden declare a national climate emergency, a move that would give the president the power to unlock federal funding for clean energy, among other potential actions. It is a tool White House officials considered wielding before.
There is one area where Biden is particularly restricted in taking actions that the environmental activists are calling for: stopping new fossil fuel projects. As part of the agreement with Manchin, the new law mandates oil and gas lease sales on federal lands and waters, and it requires the Interior Department to continue to hold auctions for fossil fuel leases if it plans to approve new wind or solar projects on federal lands.
Democratic leaders also have promised Manchin a vote on a permitting reform bill that could speed new fossil fuel projects, like oil and gas pipelines, and the development of large-scale wind and solar projects.
A recent International Energy Agency report found that countries must immediately stop new oil, gas and coal development if they hope to keep the average global temperature from increasing 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth faces irreversible damage.
The planet has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius.