Mainstream media and many large environmental organizations were bullish on President Biden’s early climate actions, but several recent moves, including the announcement of his woefully insufficient infrastructure package, raise significant concerns about the administration's willingness to take the actions necessary to avert climate chaos. If Biden is serious about tackling climate change, he needs to do more than spend relatively small amounts of money on renewable energy; he will need to directly take on the fossil fuel industry, rather than trying to work with and accommodate oil and gas interests.
Biden ran for president promising to invest in clean energy, ban new oil and gas permitting on federal land, and move us away from fossil fuels. With scientists saying we have less than a decade to move to 100% renewable electricity, Biden’s decisions could make the difference between climate chaos and a clean energy future.
There are warning signs that Biden does not intend to take on the fossil fuel industry, or even live up to the promises he made during the campaign.
There are some early rays of hope, most notably Biden’s cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline and his historic appointment of Deb Haaland to Interior Secretary, the first Native American to hold any Cabinet secretary position. Haaland had joined protests against the Dakota Access pipeline and supported a national ban on fracking during her first congressional run, though in her confirmation hearings she pledged to implement the Biden agenda. The fact that Biden is proposing investments in electrification, solar, and wind is encouraging, though his $2 trillion infrastructure package is orders of magnitude smaller than what is needed.
However, there are warning signs that Biden does not intend to take on the fossil fuel industry, or even live up to the promises he made during the campaign. In recent weeks, the administration has walked back pledges on fracking and drilling, embraced fossil fuel industry backed policies, and even scuttled the nomination of a top official because of industry opposition. At the same time, they are cozying up to Wall Street and fossil fuel interests.
Among these warning signs are the reversal of early moves to rein in permitting for new drilling and fracking on federal lands. Biden pledged to stop all new drilling as a candidate, and when he took office, he instituted a 60 day heightened review for permits. But on March 15, that heightened review lapsed and new permits continue to be approved at an increasing rate.
Further, while Haaland was confirmed by the Senate, the proposed nomination of Liz Klein to Deputy Interior Secretary was pulled due to industry opposition and several lawmakers who thought she would be too aggressive in taking on the fossil fuel industry. At the same time, lead climate advisor Gina McCarthy held a meeting with top oil and gas interest where “she made clear that the Administration is not fighting the oil and gas sector,” and expressed a desire to work with these companies on “shared priorities.”
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These shared priorities apparently include so-called “carbon capture,” which is supported by the oil and gas industry and included in Biden’s Biden’s infrastructure package. While it may be branded as a key component of climate action, “carbon capture” is really a massive subsidy for continued oil and gas production. At a very high cost, “carbon capture” aims to remove carbon at the smokestack, but the technology has been plagued by cost overruns and poor performance (most of the ‘successful’ carbon capture projects are used to get more oil out of the ground). Even if it were to work, carbon capture does nothing to stop emissions in production and transport. Spending billions on this industry boondoggle will lock us into decades more oil and gas production when we need to be moving off fossil fuels and towards renewable energy right away.
Further, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has voiced her strong support for exporting liquified fracked gas as part of our energy policy. As with “carbon capture,” building out infrastructure for increased exports will only lead to more drilling and fracking, which means more methane flowing into the atmosphere.
This also comes at a time when climate envoy John Kerry has been meeting with Wall Street and evangelizing about markets, recently saying that "no government is going to solve this problem...The solutions are going to come from the private sector."
We are not going to be able to transform our energy economy away from fossil fuels and to 100% renewable energy by coddling the oil and gas industry, embracing warmed over market-based approaches that failed two decades ago, or through investments in renewable energy alone. We need to stop drilling, pipelines, and dirty power plants, and couple that with a bold infrastructure plan that invests in wind and solar, not industry-backed schemes like carbon capture or nuclear power.
President Biden has a chance to move a bold agenda, and if he is serious about his stated belief that climate change is an existential threat that must be urgently addressed, he should stop trying to please the oil and gas industry. He should follow through on his campaign pledge to stop fracking and drilling on federal land, and pursue a program that rejects all subsidies for the fracking industry.