Nov 5, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Election likely hardens political limits of Biden climate agenda

Photo illustration of Joseph Biden standing on a small patch of ice in the middle of the ocean

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A potential President Joe Biden would face an oppositional Senate and a skeptical world if he tried to enact an aggressive climate-change agenda.

Driving the news: Odds are increasing that Biden will win the White House while Congress is likely to remain divided, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats leading the House.

Why it matters: If this outcome prevails, it means we’re in for more of the same dynamic that’s marked the last decade: congressional gridlock, political acrimony and a swinging pendulum of regulations driven by the White House.

Where it stands: Let’s revisit some of the topics I covered in my latest Harder Line column on how Biden would face political limits now that the dust is settling on the 2020 election.

Congressional (in)action

The centerpieces of Biden’s climate plan — including the $2 trillion in spending over four years and goal of making the electricity grid carbon-free in 15 years — are unlikely to materialize with Republicans still controlling the Senate.

  • Removing longstanding tax breaks the oil industry receives seems unlikely with the Senate in GOP control.

What I’m watching: Bipartisan support could emerge for more clean-energy spending (indeed, that’s happened under President Trump) and tax incentives, such as those for carbon capture tech, wind and solar.


This is where the biggest action would occur, inevitably, given the lack of congressional possibility.

Where it stands: This would be a laborious and litigious slog, not only to reverse everything Trump has done over the last four years, but to then propose even more aggressive climate-change regulations than what the Obama administration did over its eight years in office.

  • Biden faces a much taller task than Obama. He has more ambition (necessarily, due to climate change being a cumulative problem), a more conservative court system and a more skeptical world.

What they're saying:

“A Biden Administration’s regulatory re-interpretations of old laws for new circumstances could be in peril of reversal by the hundreds of strict constructionist jurists that Trump has installed into lifetime seats on the federal bench."
— ClearView Energy Partners, independent research firm

Global diplomacy

Biden has said he will push other countries to be more aggressive, but with his action limited by congressional gridlock and Trump’s track record, expect this move to be geopolitically fraught and similarly limited.

  • Global climate negotiators in other countries, namely European nations, China and others, have moved forward on goals in the time since the U.S. retreated on the issue.
  • “They would resent a whiff of U.S. triumphalism, that we’re back now and we can lead the world,” said Alden Meyer, a long-time strategist on climate policy and politics.

Oil and natural gas

Beyond the higher profile parts of Biden’s campaign to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, another lower profile — but perhaps even more impactful — change could occur.

The intrigue: In its report, ClearView writes that a Biden presidency and a split Congress could compel the executive branch to look even more to the Labor Department and Securities and Exchange Commission to “leverage financial regulation to constrain (or raise the cost) of capital for fossil energy production.”

Beyond Washington

Expect progressive states, cities and more businesses to work in lockstep with the administration, while more conservative states respond with lawsuits like they did in the Obama years.

What I’m watching: I’ll be seeing how the new, youth-led social movement on climate change, which did not exist when Obama was president, could evolve its focus with a Democratic president.

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