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117th Congress Preview: Energy and Environment

By Ann Adler and Andrew Terp

Four years ago, federal agencies, under the direction of the newly inaugurated Trump White House, launched a multi-year effort to undo policies put into place under the preceding administration.

It is not unusual for new Presidents to reexamine and revise the policies of their predecessors – particularly in the push-me-pull-you realm of energy and environmental policymaking. However, this mandate went beyond the typical reviewing and rejiggering of a preceding administration’s policies and programs to more closely reflect the principles and priorities of the new Oval Office occupant. Agencies were directed to institute a broad reversal of Obama-era regulations, programs, and policies. The shift included larger maneuvers, like withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, and smaller gestures, like editing websites and documents throughout the Executive Branch to remove references to climate change.

Consequently, the Biden administration will walk into office met with a long list of rolled back regulations and policy reversals in the energy and environmental arena that presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The triage has already begun, with Biden signaling several items on the energy/environmental front that will be prioritized for immediate executive action and others that will receive a deeper, longer term review, and require wide-ranging collaboration.

First-order action will be rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. Over the last several decades, the United States has been a key player in global efforts to address the changing climate, from advancing cutting-edge technologies for international deployment, to finding common ground among allies, to nudging tough concessions at the bargaining table, and negotiating pathways for both developed and developing nations to meet climate goals.

In the wake of the go-it-alone policies of the Trump era, we can expect an effort by the U.S. to return to a leadership position on international climate efforts. This effort will require former Secretary of State John Kerry to quickly repair relationships with foreign governments on behalf of the Biden administration. To be able to sway foreign leaders to agree to policies that benefit the U.S. and the world as a whole, the new administration will have to restore trust in America’s motivations and shore up confidence that the U.S. will be a reliable partner in the effort for the long-term.

President-elect Biden has also signaled his intention to immediately begin to institute new and renewed policies aimed at reducing emissions on multiple fronts. At the top of that agenda will be requiring disclosure by public companies of climate-related financial risks – a move intended to ensure corporate climate accountability, help to address health and safety of workers and communities, and provide insight critical to establishing market-based, carbon-cutting solutions.

Emissions-reducing strategies would also include familiar and long-debated measures like strict limits to methane releases, promoting deployment of electric vehicles, and instituting public lands and waters management policies geared toward balancing natural resources conservation benefits, including carbon sequestration, against the drive for energy production.

And just as the Biden-Harris team underscored its commitment to letting science guide the national response to the COVID pandemic, the incoming President and Vice President have committed to a science-driven climate change agenda. Plans include launching a new research agency – ARPA-C – charged with accelerating new climate technologies and investing $400 billion over ten years to leverage American know-how to produce cutting-edge, clean energy solutions.

One of the most valuable takeaways from the last four years just might be how easily one administration can unravel public policies and programs many years in the making. With his long experience in government, Biden, having witnessed multiple White House transitions and shifts in majorities in both the House and Senate, understands that lesson better than most. He is certainly cognizant that the narrow split between the Democratic and Republican Party membership in the House and Senate will make any aggressive climate agenda difficult to achieve.

Against that backdrop, Biden has signaled that his approach to the challenge of climate change will be a whole-of-government effort. Climate goals will be incorporated into the agendas of all agencies — from EPA, to Labor, to Agriculture, and beyond — quarterbacked by a seasoned team occupying brand new positions within the White House.

He has mapped out a plan to try to balance environmental justice in urban communities with economic opportunity for farmers and job security for labor, marrying energy reforms with infrastructure building and inviting a broad swath of political persuasions to contribute to the effort. It is a tall order, but for energy and environmental stakeholders of all perspectives, the chance is there to help shape policy. In this way, Biden is aiming to ensure an energy and environmental agenda that is sustainable for the long haul – one with the necessary support of the American people to survive.