Trying to Salvage His Climate Agenda, Biden Weighs Remaining Options
President Biden will travel Wednesday to a shuttered coal-fired power plant that is now part of an offshore wind project in Massachusetts, where he is expected to deliver remarks on clean energy as his administration scrambles to salvage its climate agenda.
Mr. Biden will not declare a national climate emergency, the White House confirmed, disappointing Democratic lawmakers and activists who had called on Mr. Biden to take the step, which would have given him the ability to halt new federal oil drilling and ramp up wind, solar and other clean energy projects.
The president is under great pressure to take decisive action. His administration has spent the past year and a half trying to pass robust climate change legislation, only to see it collapse last week because it failed to win support from Senator Joe Manchin III, the swing Democratic vote in the evenly divided Senate.
That setback followed a Supreme Court decision in June that sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
On Wednesday, he will tour the former Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., which, by the time it closed in 2017, was the last coal plant in the state, administration officials said. The plant is being transformed into an offshore wind facility that will make undersea transmission cables. Those lines will bring power generated by wind turbines, under construction now in the Atlantic, to the New England electrical grid.
“The climate emergency is not going to happen tomorrow but we still have it on the table,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday. “Everything is on the table. It’s just not going to be this week on that decision.”
Mr. Biden’s move comes as more than 100 million Americans, from Texas to most of Kentucky, were under heat advisories or warnings on Tuesday. Temperatures were expected to reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit, about 43 Celsius, in some states and cities. Heat advisories and emergencies were also in effect or planned for some areas of the East Coast, including Boston.
In Europe, heat was shattering temperature records across the continent, prompting British officials to declare the first-ever “red” warning for extreme heat in England. The heat triggered wildfires across Spain, France, Portugal and Greece. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, on Monday pleaded with nations to act in the face of what he termed a global “climate emergency.”
Democratic lawmakers have been urging Mr. Biden to move quickly to try to cut the pollution generated by the United States, which historically has added more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than any other country.
“In many ways the president put all his chips in this action by Congress, and we failed,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon. But, he said, “This unchains the president from waiting for Congress to act.”
Mr. Biden has been smarting from accusations from some Democrats that his response to the Supreme Court’s recent abortion ruling was slow and tepid, and has been eager to make an aggressive announcement, said the two officials, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
President Biden is pushing stronger regulations, but faces a narrow path to achieving his goals in the fight against global warming.
At the same time, some advisers to the president have urged caution so as not to antagonize Mr. Manchin in the hope that he might still agree to tax credits for wind or solar providers or other measures, they said.
Mr. Merkley accused the Biden administration of “walking on eggshells” around Mr. Manchin over the past year.
He and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said Mr. Biden should invoke a national climate emergency as well as a suite of other moves like regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, formally establishing a dollar estimate of the climate damages caused by fossil fuel projects, and imposing a tax on imports from nations that lack aggressive climate policies.
“There’s a whole array of other regulations they could proceed with,” Mr. Whitehouse said.
Climate advocates said Mr. Biden needed to show that he could take aggressive steps to stem rising emissions.
“There’s really been a total lack of leadership in this country on climate,” said Jean Su, senior attorney and director of the Energy Justice Program at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time to get serious. This is the clarion call that we need from this country’s leadership.”
Even before Mr. Manchin pulled the plug on the climate legislation, the White House had been working on executive action to fight global warming, which experts say could still take slices out of the nation’s carbon footprint, although not by enough to meet the targets Mr. Biden has pledged to the rest of the world.
In the coming months, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue tougher regulations to control methane, a potent greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas wells.
Next year, the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department plan to introduce a new rule designed to compel auto companies to rapidly ramp up sales of electric vehicles.
The E.P.A. also plans new regulation to compel electric utilities to slightly lower their greenhouse emissions, and possibly to install technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide pollution, although that nascent technology is not yet commercially viable.
The agency is also planning stricter limits on other pollution generated by power plants, such as mercury, smog and soot, that do not add to global warming. The idea is that cracking down on those pollutants could have a side benefit of forcing electric utilities to clean up or shut down the dirtiest facilities, such as coal-burning power plants, which do produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
“They had direct tools to combat climate change before, and now they’re left with smaller, indirect options,” said Michael Wara, a climate policy expert at Stanford University.
At the same time, Democrats have not given up all hope of enacting some form of climate change or clean energy policy in Congress this year — which may be their last opportunity if Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress in November’s midterm elections.
While Mr. Manchin said last week that he could not support the climate legislation, which would have provided $300 billion in tax credits for wind and solar power and electric vehicles, he later suggested in a radio interview that he might reconsider in the fall. Those remarks came after a year in which Mr. Manchin repeatedly suggested to Democrats that he would support their policies, only to pull away. But some Democrats think they may be able to tuck some modest extensions to existing clean energy tax incentives into a tax package that is expected to pass with bipartisan support at the end of the year.
Invoking a national emergency would unlock a number of tools: Mr. Biden could reinstate the crude oil export ban that was lifted in 2015, halt offshore oil and gas drilling and restrict both U.S. fossil fuel exports and the billions of dollars of U.S. investment in fossil fuel projects abroad. He could also direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund the construction of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, and marshal domestic private industries to manufacture more renewable energy and transportation technologies.
The president and executive branch already have the authority to take most of those actions, but experts said that the declaration of a climate emergency would streamline Mr. Biden’s ability to quickly enact all those policies at once.
In a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication this year, 58 percent of Americans polled said they support a U.S. president declaring global warming a national emergency if Congress did not act.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, urged Mr. Biden to declare a national climate emergency just a week into the president’s term. Last year, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Earl Blumenauer introduced a bill that directed the president to declare a national climate emergency
The National Emergencies Act, enacted nearly 50 years ago, requires presidents to formally declare a national emergency in order to activate special emergency powers, and imposed certain procedural formalities when invoking such powers. The idea was to empower the president to respond quickly to urgent, often unforeseeable crises.
Every president since has declared at least one national emergency during his term of office and 41 are still in effect today, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. President Biden invoked the law when extending a national emergency regarding Covid-19 in February and when banning Russian oil imports in March.
Some scholars warn that a national emergency declaration would be counterproductive and constitute a harmful overreach of executive power.
Emergency powers “were never meant to address longstanding problems, no matter how serious, and they’re certainly not meant to provide long-term solutions,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center.
Oil industry leaders already are pushing back against the possibility of Mr. Biden invoking new powers.
“Unilaterally declaring a climate emergency will not reduce emissions by one molecule,” Anne Bradbury, president of the American Exploration and Production Council, which represents independent oil and gas producers, said in a statement. “The only way to meaningfully reduce emissions is to work on durable climate policy with all stakeholders, including the U.S. oil and gas industry,” she said.
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.