Feb 9, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Biden's climate action window is closing

Illustration of the U.S. flag hanging from a thermometer flagpole
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

President Biden isn't just about to lose the window for Democrats to pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He could also lose a president's best backup leverage: the ability to cut them through executive and regulatory actions.

Why it matters: The Biden administration may soon find itself hamstrung by unfavorable court rulings, including West Virginia v. EPA, a Supreme Court case scheduled for oral arguments on Feb. 28 that could curtail the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

  • Environmentalists are watching the case closely, fearing the new conservative majority on the court may be willing to go far toward dismantling the EPA's regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act.
  • "How much of the Clean Air Act they decide to gut, or if they decide to do it, is really an open question," said Jamal Raad, the co-founder and executive director of Evergreen Action, an environmental group.
  • That's on top of the collapse of the Build Back Better act, the best vehicle Democrats had for cutting emissions.
  • So unless Build Back Better somehow rises from the dead — or Congress can pass the climate provisions on their own — the White House might not have the option of turning to the executive and regulatory approach that the Obama administration used on climate after it ran into its own congressional roadblocks.

The big picture: With polling and history strongly suggesting the Democrats will lose control of one or both chambers of Congress in the fall, failing to pass a climate package now could mean the next opportunity will prove elusive for as long as a decade, depending on the effects of redistricting and other structural political factors.

  • Simply put, peer reviewed research shows that emissions cuts cannot wait that long, as the world is already on course for at least 3°C (5.4°F) of warming above preindustrial levels.
  • This is twice the more stringent temperature target in the Paris Climate Agreement. Cutting emissions of comparatively short-lived methane can buy countries some time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but that too depends in part on EPA regulations.
  • However, the more time that is spent without a clear government signal to support and incentivize emissions cuts, the harder it will be to further accelerate the pace of electric vehicle and renewable energy deployment.

The intrigue: As part of the Build Back Better legislation, House and Senate Democrats had put together a package of more than $330 million in tax breaks and other incentives to boost the advancement and deployment of clean energy, manufacturing of electric vehicles and other steps.

  • The legislation also contained provisions to make burning fossil fuels for electricity more expensive over time. It's now blocked by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as well as the solid opposition of Republicans.
  • However, multiple lawmakers have said, and activists maintain, that the climate portion of the bill could be cobbled back together and passed relatively easily.
  • Raad, for example, told Axios that there is 90 to 95% agreement on the climate portions of the bill.
  • "The climate stuff is the most fully baked of all the different proposals. It is now time for that same energy and work to go into making the tough choices necessary to get us over the finish line" on the legislation's social policy provisions, Raad said.
  • "Every day that goes by we're risking disaster of not acting. I don't see how we meet our international climate commitments without an investment strategy that invests in clean power, clean buildings and clean cars," he said.

The latest: Activists including the NRDC, League of Conservation Voters, Climate Power and others are pushing for climate legislation in the run-up to President Biden's State of the Union on March 1. Evergreen Action, for example, is running stark TV and digital ads in D.C. and New York City (home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer).

  • "President Biden and Democrats in Congress hold our last, best chance to take on the climate crisis by passing transformational investments. Our time is up. We won’t get another chance," the ads say.

Yes, but: This urgency does not line up with Manchin's timetable, since he said on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday that any bill has to go through the committee process, rather than being negotiated by groups of senators and brought directly to the floor.

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