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Biden to use first 100 days to jump-start climate change agenda

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to move quickly to execute his energy and climate change agenda during his first 100 days in office, both through executive action and the launch or rollback of agency rulemakings.

The incoming president will also work closely with the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress on climate policy as lawmakers draft further legislation to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is expected come out of the gate with big moves to set the U.S. on the path to tackling climate change in their first 100 days in office.
Source: Biden Campaign/Adam Schultz

Biden has pledged to set the U.S. on the path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 with an interim target of decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by 2035. He is expected to use his first 100 days to start the nation down that road.

Trevor Higgins, senior fellow on the climate team of the Center for American Progress, said Biden needs to quickly set in motion all of the transitions required to achieve his climate goals, which pose an "extraordinary challenge."

Higgins noted Biden has pledged to use "all of the levers in the federal government to accelerate the transitions that are already in motion." That said, "I don't think it's like he's going to come in and snap his fingers and suddenly something is fixed. I think what we're doing is now starting to repair the damage that the Trump administration did to our bedrock environmental laws and get back to the work of stabilizing the climate."

In addition, Biden can address climate change at the same time as some other big priorities he has coming into office, said Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

"You really cannot set aside tackling climate change from their economic agenda," Chieffo said. Climate change "is deeply interwoven and at the heart of how we're going to build back better from this pandemic and the national reckoning we're having about injustice and what drives that and how much systemic racism has driven the problems that we're seeing."

Executive action

Two climate-related steps Biden is expected to take on his first day in office are to have the U.S. rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change — which would take 30 days to take effect — and to issue an executive order on climate change that directs agencies to make climate change a top priority domestically as well. President Donald Trump officially withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement in November.

Climate policy experts said rejoining the accord will send a signal to the international community but will also ultimately end up driving domestic policy.

"Rejoining Paris is not simply about rejoining the agreement but in rejoining the agreement the U.S. will then need to put forward" its decarbonization commitment for 2030, also known as nationally determined contributions under the accord, said Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Setting an ambitious and credible target will take a concerted effort within the government and will ultimately provide the framework "for what the Biden administration then starts to do in terms of its own actions under existing law and what it pushes Congress to do," Keohane said.

Under the global pact, the U.S. had pledged to reduce economywide greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. But Keohane believes that the U.S. could be significantly more ambitious and set a target as high as 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, which would put the nation "slightly ahead" of the pace needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Biden administration will also quickly set out to roll back actions taken under the Trump administration.

Biden's transition team said he will issue a memorandum on Jan. 20 to freeze any recently finalized Trump administration regulations that have not taken effect by Inauguration Day. The memo could target several rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has completed a flurry of new regulations in the past month.

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A length of pipe is readied for installation along TC Energy's Keystone XL line.
Source: Government of Alberta

Biden could also issue an executive order in his first 100 days to revoke a presidential permit for TC Energy Corp.'s Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, a pledge he made during his campaign. Rejection of the presidential permit would prevent the pipeline from extending into the U.S. from Canada, where TC Energy is already building one leg of the project.

Energy Transfer LP's already-completed Dakota Access LLC could also be under the microscope. The project has been built but remains in limbo after a federal court ruled that a Missouri River construction easement from the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, Biden could direct the Corps to force the Dakota Access Pipeline to stop operating until its court-ordered environmental impact statement is completed. Alternatively, the Biden administration could ask Energy Transfer to suspend or reduce its capacity expansion plans as a compromise, Height Securities LLC analyst Josh Price said.

According to Harvard University's Environmental and Energy Law Program, other early steps Biden could take on the climate front include reestablishing an interagency working group to calculate the social cost of carbon for cost-benefit analyses. He also could direct the White House Council on Environmental Quality to expand the type of projects and impacts considered under NEPA regulations.

The government can also play a big role in working toward Biden's goal to boost federal clean energy procurement by $400 billion. Harvard's energy and environmental law program said Biden could issue executive orders or memoranda requiring agencies to purchase zero-emissions light-duty vehicles and for all U.S. government buildings and installations to produce net-zero emissions by 2030.


The Biden administration will also lean heavily on federal agencies to kickstart its climate plans. A key early focus will be rolling back Trump-era environmental regulations for the energy sector and drafting more stringent ones, policy experts said.

"I think there will be a number of directives to agencies to reconsider conventional rulemakings," said Ben Longstreth, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Energy Program. "I would expect [those orders] to cover many of the pollution standards that have been rolled back by the Trump administration."

Similar to the first days of Barack Obama's presidency, Longstreth said the White House could direct agencies to reconsider existing regulations, including the Trump EPA's vehicle emissions standards and Affordable Clean Energy rule for power plants.

The Department of the Interior under Biden will likely reverse Trump's efforts to open up more offshore areas to oil and gas development, with Biden wanting to ban new oil and gas permitting in federal areas. The EPA and Interior will also be responsible for fulfilling Biden's call to form "aggressive" limits on methane pollution from oil and gas production.

Turning to the U.S. Department of Energy, the agency could move swiftly to strengthen appliance efficiency standards, some of which were stalled or withdrawn under the Trump administration.

But Chieffo noted that carrying out all those agency-specific agendas will require the Biden administration to build back up the ranks of those agencies "that have been decimated under the Trump administration." As such, Biden's first 100 days may include a big focus on bolstering staffing as well as getting nominees through the Senate confirmation process.

Beyond the environmental regulations, climate policy experts also noted that the Biden administration is expected to use the U.S. Securities Commission and other financial regulators to push companies and the financial sector to tackle climate change. Biden's climate plan in his election campaign included a pledge to make companies disclose their climate risks and emissions levels, among other things.


Although Biden can take big steps on his own, Congress will play a key role in carrying out his climate ambitions, particularly with Democrats now controlling both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

In the near term, Democrats could pass Congressional Review Act disapproval resolutions to repeal recently completed Trump regulations.

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Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Senate will consider bold climate legislation in the new Congress.
Source: Sen. Schumer

Congress is also expected to prioritize additional rounds of coronavirus economic relief that could contain incentives or funding for clean energy technology.

Following that, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the upper chamber "will consider bold legislation to defeat the climate crisis by investing in clean infrastructure and manufacturing, which will create millions of good jobs for Americans, regardless of zip code."

Part of Biden's clean energy push involves creating or expanding tax incentives for clean energy, including restoring the full federal tax credit for electric vehicle purchases. Congress would need to approve those tax measures, as well as Biden's call to increase federal funding for clean technology research and development.

Congress has passed legislation on a bipartisan basis in recent years to boost clean energy research at national labs and prolong federal tax credits for renewable energy. But Biden may have a harder time getting a narrowly divided Congress to go along with his more sweeping climate proposals.

Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the House and Senate, which could make passage of legislation to enact a nationwide clean electricity standard or carbon tax more difficult. To get around GOP opposition to sweeping climate bills, Democrats could seek to eliminate the Senate filibuster or use budget reconciliation to advance legislation. Both processes would avoid the need to gain 60 votes for those measures in the Senate.