WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a sweeping series of executive actions — ranging from pausing new federal oil leases to electrifying the government’s vast fleet of vehicles — while casting the moves as much about job creation as the climate crisis.
Biden said his directives would reserve 30% of federal land and water for conservation purposes, make climate policy central to national security decisions and build out a network of electric-car charging stations nationwide.
But much of the sales pitch on employment looked intended to counteract long-standing Republican attacks that Biden’s climate policies would inevitably hurt an economy already weakened by the pandemic.
Biden argued instead that technological gains and demands for wind and solar infrastructure would create work that would more than make up for job losses even in parts of the country reliant on the fracking boom. Using the government’s purchasing power to buy zero-emissions vehicles, Biden said, would help speed the transition away from gasoline-powered cars and ultimately lead to “1 million new jobs in the American automobile industry.”
Overall, the text of his executive order mentions the word “jobs” 15 times.
And in a clear echo of former President Barack Obama’s claims that his climate policies would create millions of “green jobs,” Biden also said his agenda would create “prevailing wage” employment and union jobs for workers to build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes, to manufacture and install a half-million new electric-vehicle charging stations, and to seal off 1 million leaking oil and gas wells.
“Today is climate day in the White House, which means today is jobs day at the White House,” Biden said.
Taking on another Republican refrain, Biden reiterated his long-standing position that he wouldn’t ban fracking, saying his policies would in fact “protect jobs and grow jobs” by putting people to work capping leaky oil and gas wells. His order creates a task force aimed at economically reviving communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
Some prominent Republicans said they weren’t buying it and that the administration would in fact hurt employment as well as middle-class families.
“I’m all for transitioning to cleaner forms of energy, but we have to deal with the reality of, for example, the fact that there are 280 million cars with internal combustion engines on our roads,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement. “How are families going to get to work, take their kids to school, or live their life if all of a sudden the very natural resource that they depend on for their cars is no longer available?”
Economists said some of Biden’s assertions were overblown, but they offered cautious praise for his plans to find employment for displaced fossil fuel workers.
David Popp, an economist at Syracuse University and co-author of a 2020 paper on the employment effects of Obama-era spending on green job creation, discounted the notion of creating 1 million new auto manufacturing jobs. “He’s basically saying he’s going to double auto manufacturing. I find that hard to believe,” said Popp. “You can’t do that with auto emissions regulations. You can’t do that with government procurement.”
However, Popp and others noted that several economic studies on the employment effects of environmental regulations typically conclude that the results are a net wash — jobs lost in polluting sectors often equal jobs created in clean energy and environmental mitigation.
And he praised Biden for acknowledging that the government should play a larger role in helping displaced fossil fuel workers find jobs in the clean energy sector. “The skills on these clean energy jobs — installing and manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines — are actually a decent match” with workers coming from fields like mining or offshore drilling, he said. “What’s really important is how well you can match the job losses to gains.”
After four years of watching former President Donald Trump mock climate science and dismantle climate policy, environmentalists welcomed the changes.
“This is the single biggest day for climate action in more than a decade,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., ended his run of 279 near-weekly climate speeches on the Senate floor, saying, “The conditions are at last in place for a real solution.”
Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and critic of the Trump administration’s policy of eliminating climate change regulations, noted that in 2019 about 40% of the U.S. workforce was in clean energy. “This is the way the world is going,” she said.
Corporate leaders took a measured response. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised Biden’s efforts at tackling rising emissions while condemning his directive halting oil and gas leases.
The decision to pause new leases is a significant step toward one of Biden’s most contentious campaign promises: that he would put a stop to new drilling permits on federal lands and waters.
His executive order stops short of that, directing the Interior Department “to the extent consistent with applicable law” only to “pause” leases pending a review of the climate-change effects associated with drilling on federal land and waters; it doesn’t address permits.
The order also calls for increasing renewable energy production on those lands and waters, with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.
Oil, gas and coal executives said Biden’s leasing pause will do little to actually reduce U.S. emissions and lead to lost jobs and more imported oil. The Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers in Western states, filed a lawsuit within minutes of Biden signing his order that said the president exceeded his authority to halt new leases.
The challenge, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, accuses the Biden administration of making an “arbitrary and capricious” decision.
But the pause on leases is one that climate change advocates had long sought and many said they hope the Biden administration will go still further and deny permits for new oil and gas drilling. Oceana, an environmental group focused on ocean health, released an analysis this week finding that ending new leasing for offshore oil and gas could prevent over 19 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden’s actions Wednesday also established broad new foreign policy goals — including that climate change, for the first time, will be a core part of all foreign policy and national security decisions. Overall, they set in motion his pledge to broadly refocus the federal government on climate policy, but the concrete implementation of new policy could take years, experts said.
“The high-level message of these orders is that we are going back to undo the things that Trump did to weaken environmental protections,” said Jody Freeman, a professor of environmental law at Harvard who served as a White House climate adviser in the Obama administration. She described the plans as “an instruction manual to agencies.”
On foreign policy, Wednesday’s executive order formalized the role for John Kerry, former Secretary of State, as Biden’s international climate envoy, with a seat on the National Security Council. The actions also call for the federal government’s 17 intelligence agencies to create a first-ever National Intelligence Estimate of the national security risks posed by climate change.
The administration formally announced that it will host a Climate Leaders Summit of major emitting nations and others on April 22, which is Earth Day. Kerry said by that date the United States expects to announce a new set of specific targets detailing how it would lower its carbon dioxide emissions under the terms of the Paris Agreement, the international climate accord from which former Trump had withdrawn, and which Biden has rejoined.
The United States has struggled to meet its promises under the Paris Agreement; it had pledged to slash emissions up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2020. Energy analysts in the United States have speculated the Biden administration could now reasonably promise to cut emissions between 40% and 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Europeans and environmental activists have urged the United States to go further, as far as 70%. Kerry on Wednesday said it was “way too premature” to talk numbers.
Biden also directed agencies to look for ways to increase and improve the climate-forecast information available to help governments and others prepare for the consequences of climate change. Every federal agency also will be expected to create plans to better protect their facilities against rising sea levels, storms, droughts and other climate effects.
That reflects a significant challenge: Even the Washington headquarters of many agencies, including the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, sit inside the 100-year flood plain.
Also on Wednesday, Biden issued a sweeping presidential memorandum instructing agencies to make what the White House called “evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” Every agency, not just those that do scientific research, must appoint “scientific integrity” officials.
The steps to ensure scientific integrity follow efforts by the Trump administration to thwart climate science.
Gina McCarthy, Biden’s top adviser on domestic climate policy, reiterated Biden’s framing of his climate policies as good for employment by creating clean energy jobs where fossil fuel work is on the decline. “We’re not going to ask people to go from the middle of Ohio and Pennsylvania and ship out to the coast to work on solar,” she said. “We’re not going to take away jobs.”