Jan 28, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Takeaways from Biden's sweeping order on climate change

Illustration of a green round table with the Earth as the top of the table.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden's mammoth executive order on climate policy weighs in at over 7,500 words and resists any single narrative, but I've got a few initial takeaways.

Why it matters: The order aims to marshal the entire federal government behind new initiatives, so that means agencies that may not have the muscle memory or expertise of the resource and environmental branches like EPA and DOE.

Time, part 1: Executive orders are largely statements of intent to make and enact policy (though the oil leasing freeze is more immediate, so more on that in a moment). So whether this succeeds at enabling steep emissions cuts, helping fossil fuel industry workers transition, or easing racial disparities in pollution exposure, to name just three goals, won't be known for years.

Time, part 2: OK, that said, one noteworthy thing is that the order says the administration is shooting to reveal its updated pledge under the Paris Agreement — called a "nationally determined contribution" — ahead of the April 22 global "climate leaders summit" Biden will host.

Congress: For all the focus on executive actions in yesterday's splashy rollout, remember that some key parts of Biden's agenda will need Capitol Hill to succeed — including huge new investments in climate-friendly infrastructure deployment and Biden's goal to hugely scale up clean energy research, development and deployment funding.

Let's talk about the public lands oil leasing ban: It's already facing industry litigation, but even if it stays intact, there's already a dispute about how consequential it is.

  • Where it stands: Industry groups slammed the order, seeing it as part of a one-two punch — and a sign of broader anti-development headwinds from Biden — after last week's Interior Department order that puts major new (albeit temporary for now) restrictions on issuing permits to drill on existing leases.
  • Yes, but: But an Interior “fact sheet” on the order's leasing freeze notes the industry has “stockpiled” millions of acres of leases on public lands and waters and have many permits in hand. “Onshore and offshore, the oil and gas industry is sitting on approximately 7,700 unused, approved permits to drill,” they note.
  • What they're saying: This morning the Financial Times has an excellent look at the freeze that gets to something I've been thinking about too in recent days: It's arguably less aggressive than Biden's campaign plan, which called for outright banning permitting on public lands and waters.
  • “I would say it’s a best-case scenario for the oil industry under a Biden administration,” S&P Global analyst Parker Fawcett tells the FT. “Leases are already plentiful — it’s the permitting that matters.”

What we're watching: Another thing that caught my eye is that the order envisions a muscular role for the Treasury Department, including working with U.S. and multilateral development finance agencies on climate initiatives.

  • That's important because climate activists have long seen untapped potential there.

Go deeper: I summarized the order in yesterday's newsletter.

Go deeper