Damage control - How quickly can Biden undo Trump's climate policy?

We look at where Biden can move fast to shift focus towards renewables and where he will face battles

Joe Biden is due to take office on 20 January (pic: Gage Skidmore/flickr)

President-elect Joe Biden on 11 November started outlining a plan to fight the climate crisis, wording that leaves no doubt that his policies will be opposite to those of the current US president, climate denier Donald Trump.

During campaigning, Biden proposed a $2 trillion climate and energy plan over the four years of his term should he win, and “tens of thousands” more wind turbines. He had previously proposed $1.7 trillion climate, energy and sustainability spending over ten years.

This deep shift could be helped by adopting a technology-neutral energy efficiency and clean electricity standard, he has said, and by ending fossil-fuel subsidies. His longer-term goal is decarbonising the US power sector by 2035 — long after he will have left office.

A moderate Democrat, Biden can achieve much of his energy and climate plan without Congress.

Biden has said that on his first day in office, 20 January, he will again sign the Paris Agreement, the climate accord Trump left as soon as he was inaugurated. The US’s exit became final on 4 November 2020.

With the US’s return to the climate fold, expectations are higher that the UN's COP26 climate summit in a year’s time in Glasgow may succeed.

Biden’s team says his administration will embed climate change across all federal departments, such as State, Treasury and Agriculture, and not just the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy. What direct or indirect impact this could have on wind development is not clear.

Prioritising the climate issue will, however, help push stakeholders – from states to utilities to oil and gas companies – to account and make plans for climate change, Dan Shreve, head of global wind analysis for Wood Mackenzie, points out.

An estimated 100 or so environmental regulations were rolled back by Trump, adds Shreve, and Biden can reregulate, though such moves can face litigation and take time.

While the regulations do not directly impact wind or solar development, if new regulation makes producing natural gas on public land pricier, wind power, by comparison, becomes cheaper, he suggests.

Biden can also push through big-picture legislation declaring that CO2 is a pollutant and thus must be regulated. And he appoints members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc).

Yet, much of Biden’s plan would require legislation introduced in and passed by Congress. His agenda is expected to face opposition in a US Senate likely to remain majority Republican and led by Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell — who showed a penchant for killing off Democratic legislation during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Two run-off races in Georgia on 5 January will determine the leadership of the Senate; neither is expected to be won by the Democrats.  

The House of Representatives is still led by Democrats, albeit by a smaller margin than before the election. The issue of wind development cuts across party lines to a degree.

Interestingly, the prominent Republican Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said that carbon pricing should be “on the table” if Congress crafts climate legislation in 2021.

However, broad climate legislation is not seen as an immediate priority for many lawmakers given Covid-19 and the related economic crisis, according to Shreve.

A Clean Energy Standard, or extension of wind-friendly tax credits — such as the expiring and lucrative production and investments tax credits — are matters that would be taken up by Congress, not directly by Biden, although he can advocate and is known for his ability to work with Republicans.

Yet the extension of tax credits is a definitely a maybe rather than likely, says Shreve. Such changes would have to be bipartisan.

Passage of a stimulus bill including a boost for infrastructure, such as transmission, is more likely within the first year, though Shreve warns that developing transmission lines would still face the same local opposition as before.

Biden has said he wants to erase fossil-fuel subsidies, a matter that would have to be addressed by Congress. Ending them would involve a fight, given the strength of the oil and gas lobby.

Even so, in 2022, quite a few senators and representatives are up for re-election, so the make-up of Congress will again be up in the air.