Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in July released a clean-energy plan that sketches the outlines of one of the biggest policy divides of the 2020 election: How to respond to climate change — a complex, high-stakes challenge that will remain long after the coronavirus crisis subsides.
Biden seeks to put the United States on a kind of wartime footing to launch a massive effort — backed by $2 trillion in spending — to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury, which means whatever carbon pollution is emitted into the atmosphere is offset by other measures.
The Biden plan has an even more ambitious target for the elimination of carbon emissions from the generation of the nation’s electricity. That target is 2035, a breakneck pace that is a full decade earlier than the current Washington state deadline.
“Science tells us how we act — or fail to act — in the next 12 years will determine the very livability of our planet,” Biden said in a campaign video.
President Donald Trump has often scoffed at, questioned or downplayed climate science that forecasts average global temperatures by the end of the 21st century will rise from 2.5 degrees to more than 9 degrees Fahrenheit as greenhouse gases build up in the Earth’s atmosphere. During a September visit to a California stricken by massive wildfires, he predicted that, “It will start getting cooler, you just watch.”
Trump has rolled back automotive fuel efficiency standards, and pushed to expand oil and gas exploration on federal lands and to revive — so far unsuccessfully — coal-fired electrical generation. His withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate will take effect in November.
Trump boasts about a dramatic rebound in U.S. oil and gas production over the past decade as fracking technology that injects liquids under pressure has unleashed vast new reserves locked in shale formations. In a July 29 speech in the oil-producing heartland of Midland, Texas, he noted that the United States is now the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas, and he would work to “ensure we maintain this position long into the future.”
Wide policy gap
If Trump is able to defy the polls that now show him trailing Biden by a substantial margin, he is expected to continue on his current course.
His energy policies include support for developing a new generation of nuclear power plants that produce no carbon emissions. In October, the Energy Department awarded an $80 million grant to Washington-based TerraPower, the first in a series of taxpayer cash infusions that — if Congress approves of the appropriations — is intended within seven years to develop a licensed U.S. nuclear power plant.
The Energy Department also is investing federal funds in pollution-control systems that would enable oil and gas and coal plants to capture carbon emissions for underground storage. On Sept. 1, the department announced $72 million in grants for carbon capture, which so far has been a costly and challenging technology to develop.
But under a Trump second term, most of U.S. climate policy is expected to be defined by state initiatives — such as the 2019 Washington clean power act — and actions taken by city governments.
If Biden wins, and the Senate joins the House in Democratic control, the stage would be set for an epic flip-flop in federal policy as the new president — through executive orders and congressional legislation — seeks to implement his clean energy plan.
The plan includes setting regulatory standards for greenhouse gas reductions in transportation. Those standards for buildings and power generation include dates by which industry must meet them.
Biden proposes to use huge increases in federal spending to boost research into breakthrough technologies and to create family-wage, union jobs to help the nation move to a low-carbon economy.
His plan also calls for a just transition. That means helping to retrain workers in oil, gas and coal whose jobs are lost in transformation, and investing in environmental cleanups to improve the plight of those who have lived in communities hard hit by fossil-fuel pollution.
“This is not a status quo plan … It is comprehensive,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in an interview with The New York Times.
Inslee last year made his own presidential bid on a campaign focused on climate change that ended unsuccessfully but bolstered his reputation among Democrats as a leader in green policy. And some of Inslee’s presidential campaign staff continue to flesh out a blueprint for U.S. climate action.
“There are a number of us who are taking the policy plan that the governor championed for the country last year … and using it to drive the debate and the solutions for this,” said Sam Ricketts, who worked on Inslee’s presidential campaign and then cofounded Evergreen Action to continue to advocate for the six-part, 218-page Inslee climate plan.
One example of Inslee’s influence on the Biden campaign is using a regulatory approach to removing carbon emission from electricity generation. Though Inslee endorsed the Washington state legislation that had a 2045 date to phase out power plant carbon emissions, he shortened that timeline by a decade when he launched his presidential campaign. Then, that tighter time frame was adapted by Biden as he revamped his energy plan in July.
Ricketts, who helped draft Inslee’s presidential climate proposals, views a carbon-free power system as a key to a broader U.S. reduction of greenhouse gases that would result from more electric-powered vehicles and more electricity used to heat buildings. He thinks the 2035 transformation is possible if attempted at the national level, and backed by federal support for expanding solar, wind and other forms of carbon-free electricity.
Still, that target date would require a huge and rapid change in power production that could pose significant logistical challenges to maintain a reliable grid.
Currently, more than 60 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by coal and natural gas power plants. Under the Biden plan, some of these plants could continue to operate if they have the ability to capture carbon emissions or storage underground. And Biden, during a town hall broadcast last Thursday, said he expected some of those plants would be needed to meet the 2035 goal.
“We should be moving toward finding the new technologies that are going to be able to deal with carbon capture,” Biden said.
Democratic activists who helped to draft the Biden clean energy plan are eager to put climate change policy on a fast track should the former vice president win in November.
They hope that the massive Western wildfires and record season of hurricanes will help to kindle grassroots support and a new sense of urgency for climate action.
But Frank Maisano, a Washington D.C.-based communication specialist who represents energy companies, forecasts a Biden win would set the stage for and epic tug of war between activists and party moderates who would want to move more slowly on climate policy.
“The question is how much of what happens early in the Biden agenda is going to focus on energy and environment. They are going to have COVID and economic issues and health care to deal with,” said Maisano, of Bracewell LLP.
Carbon pricing fades
Biden’s experiences in the Obama administration, when a Democrat-controlled Congress failed to pass major climate legislation, offers evidence of the political challenges of revamping the nation’s energy system.
The 2010 bill, which was approved by the House and never voted on in the Senate, would have created a cap on carbon emissions that declined over time. It also put a price on this pollution through a system that enabled companies to trade in permits to meet the limits.
Though carbon pricing has been adapted by California, it also has been a tough political challenge to gain passage in other states. In Washington, the Legislature and voters through two initiatives have so far rejected carbon pricing in various forms, including a carbon tax, fee and a cap-and-trade system.
This year, some Democrats still talk about putting a price on carbon pollution. But carbon pricing is not directly mentioned in the Biden plan.
“If it was ever at the heart of their climate policy, it is certainly not now,” said Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the Carbon Tax Center, which advocates for taxing greenhouse gas pollution.
Komanoff says he still views carbon pricing as a vital part of climate policy to help guide industry investments, and is hopeful that some form of carbon pricing would gain passage in a Biden administration.