Trying to salvage his climate agenda, Biden weighs remaining options
By Lisa Friedman, Coral Davenport and Elena Shao
President Joe Biden traveled Wednesday to a shuttered coal-fired power plant that is now part of an offshore wind project in Massachusetts, where he was expected to deliver remarks on clean energy as his administration scrambles to salvage its climate agenda.
Biden will not declare a national climate emergency, the White House confirmed, disappointing Democratic lawmakers and activists who had called on Biden to take the step, which would have given him the ability to halt new federal oil drilling and ramp up wind, solar and other clean energy projects.
The president is under great pressure to take decisive action. His administration has spent the past year and a half trying to pass robust climate change legislation, only to see it collapse last week because it failed to win support from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the swing Democratic vote in the evenly divided Senate.
That setback followed a Supreme Court decision in June that sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
On Wednesday, he was to tour the former Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, which, by the time it closed in 2017, was the last coal plant in the state, administration officials said. The plant is being transformed into an offshore wind facility that will make undersea transmission cables. Those lines will bring power generated by wind turbines, under construction now in the Atlantic, to the New England electrical grid.
“The climate emergency is not going to happen tomorrow but we still have it on the table,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday. “Everything is on the table. It’s just not going to be this week on that decision.”
Democratic lawmakers have been urging Biden to move quickly to try to cut pollution generated by the United States, which historically has added more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than any other country.
“In many ways the president put all his chips in this action by Congress, and we failed,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. But, he said, “This unchains the president from waiting for Congress to act.”
Biden has been smarting from accusations from some Democrats that his response to the Supreme Court’s recent abortion ruling was slow and tepid, and has been eager to make an aggressive announcement, said the two officials, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
At the same time, some advisers to the president have urged caution so as not to antagonize Manchin in the hope that he might still agree to tax credits for wind or solar providers or other measures, they said.
Merkley accused the Biden administration of “walking on eggshells” around Manchin over the past year.
He and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Biden should invoke a national climate emergency as well as a suite of other moves like regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, formally establishing a dollar estimate of the climate damages caused by fossil fuel projects, and imposing a tax on imports from nations that lack aggressive climate policies.
“There’s a whole array of other regulations they could proceed with,” Whitehouse said.
Climate advocates said Biden needed to show that he could take aggressive steps to stem rising emissions.
“There’s really been a total lack of leadership in this country on climate,” said Jean Su, senior attorney and director of the Energy Justice Program at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time to get serious. This is the clarion call that we need from this country’s leadership.”
Even before Manchin pulled the plug on the climate legislation, the White House had been working on executive action to fight global warming, which experts say could still take slices out of the nation’s carbon footprint, although not by enough to meet the targets Biden has pledged to the rest of the world.
In the coming months, the EPA plans to issue tougher regulations to control methane, a potent greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells.
Next year, the EPA and Transportation Department plan to introduce a new rule designed to compel auto companies to rapidly ramp up sales of electric vehicles.
The EPA also plans new regulation to compel electric utilities to slightly lower their greenhouse emissions and possibly to install technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide pollution, although that nascent technology is not yet commercially viable.
The agency is also planning stricter limits on other pollution generated by power plants, such as mercury, smog and soot, that do not add to global warming. The idea is that cracking down on those pollutants could have a side benefit of forcing electric utilities to clean up or shut down the dirtiest facilities, such as coal-burning power plants, which do produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
“They had direct tools to combat climate change before, and now they’re left with smaller, indirect options,” said Michael Wara, a climate policy expert at Stanford University.
At the same time, Democrats have not given up all hope of enacting some form of climate change or clean energy policy in Congress this year — which may be their last opportunity if Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress in November’s midterm elections.
In a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication this year, 58% of Americans polled said they support a U.S. president declaring global warming a national emergency if Congress did not act.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, urged Biden to declare a national climate emergency just a week into the president’s term. Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced a bill that directed the president to declare a national climate emergency.
The National Emergencies Act, enacted nearly 50 years ago, requires presidents to formally declare a national emergency in order to activate special emergency powers and imposed certain procedural formalities when invoking such powers. The idea was to empower the president to respond quickly to urgent, often unforeseeable crises.
Every president since has declared at least one national emergency during his term of office, and 41 are still in effect today, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Biden invoked the law when extending a national emergency regarding COVID-19 in February and when banning Russian oil imports in March.
Some scholars warn that a national emergency declaration would be counterproductive and constitute a harmful overreach of executive power.
Emergency powers “were never meant to address long-standing problems, no matter how serious, and they’re certainly not meant to provide long-term solutions,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center.