Energy and Climate Actions in Biden’s first Weeks in Office

February 10, 2021 | Andy Barnes, Director of Policy & Communications, CEBN

President Biden campaigned on prioritizing climate change in his Administration, with an ambitious $2T plan to invest in clean energy and setting a target for a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035. His “Build Back Better” plan centered around accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies like electric vehicles, solar, wind, and energy efficient buildings. It is no surprise then that the new Administration has taken swift action on clean energy and climate in the early days of Biden’s tenure. Below is a summary of the key personnel President Biden has chosen to implement his clean energy and climate agenda, along with the actions he has taken in his first few weeks in office.

Appointments: At the earliest stages of an Administration, personnel is policy. President Biden’s appointments for energy and climate policy demonstrate a high priority for this space. He has brought together a group of individuals with deep climate policy experience and signaled his intent to prioritize climate across the entire Federal Government, refocus clean energy investment around jobs, and overlay this work through the lens of environmental justice. Personnel choices indicate he will weave combating climate change into multiple domains across the government including national security, foreign affairs, and economic policy. John Kerry in his role as climate envoy, for instance, has a seat on the National Security Council, and Brian Deese, a former Obama climate/energy aide now runs the National Economic Council. The White House Council on Environmental Quality, under the leadership of Brenda Mallory, will coordinate cross-agency action on environmental justice. President Biden also created an entirely new entity, the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, headed by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and the elevation of the Presidential Climate Envoy position to cabinet-level status is a first.

Key Cabinet-Level Appointments:

  • DOE: Jennifer Granholm, former Gov. of Michigan
  • EPA: Michael Regan, Environmental Secretary for NC
  • DOT: Pete Buttigieg, former Mayor of South Bend, IN
  • Interior: Deb Haaland, Representative of New Mexico’s first Congressional District
  • CEQ: Brenda Mallory, CEQ Chief Counsel under Obama
  • Agriculture: Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture under Obama, former Gov. of Iowa
  • Treasury: Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve Chair
  • NEW POSITION: Special Presidential Envoy for Climate: John Kerry, former Sec. of State
  • Office of Science Technology & Policy: Eric Lander, Member of the Nat. Academy of Sciences/Medicine
  • SBA: Isabel Guzman, head of the California Office of the Small Business Advocate

White House Appointments:

  • NEW POSITION: National Climate Advisor: Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator under Obama
  • NEW POSITION: Deputy Climate Advisor: Ali Zaidi, former Obama climate/energy advisor
  • NEW POSITION: Office of Domestic Climate Policy, Chief of Staff: Maggie Thomas, climate advisor to Inslee & Warren
  • Director of National Economic Council: Brian Deese, climate/energy advisor under Obama
  • Dir. of Climate Change & Energy, NSC: Melanie Nakagawa, Obama Dep. Assist. Sec. of State Energy Transform.
  • NEW POSITION: Assoc. Dir. Climate, Energy, Env. & Science, OMB: Candace Vahlsing, Obama climate/energy advisor

Department of Energy Appointments:

  • Deputy Secretary of Energy: David Turk, Deputy Executive Director at the IEA
  • Chief of Staff: Tarak Shah, chief of staff to undersecretary for science and energy at DOE from 2014 to 2017
  • NEW POSITION: Deputy Director for Energy Justice: Shalanda Baker, Professor public policy at Northeastern Univ.
  • NEW POSITION: Director of Energy Jobs: Jennifer Jean Kropke, Director of workforce and env. engagement for IBEW
  • Office of Technology Transitions, Chief Commercialization Officer: Vanessa Chan, Prof. at Univ. of Pennsylvania
  • Chief of Staff, Office of Science: Tanya Das, Staff member on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee
  • Chief of Staff, EERE: Shara Mohtadi, led the America’s Pledge initiative on climate change, Bloomberg Philanthropies
  • Principal Deputy Assistant, EERE: Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the Energy Storage Association
  • Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs: Andrew Light, Sr. Adviser to Obama’s Climate Envoy

Environmental Protection Agency Appointments:

  • Deputy Administrator: Janet McCabe, former head of EPA Office of Air
  • Chief of Staff: Dan Utech, Obama’s Deputy Assistant for Energy and Climate
  • Deputy Associate Administrator for Congressional Affairs: Radha Adhar,  Energy advisor to Sen. Duckworth
  • Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy: Alison Cassady, Deputy Staff Dir. for House Select Committee on Climate Crisis
  • Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Air and Radiation: Joseph Goffman, former Obama EPA Official
  • Deputy Administrator, Office of Research & Development: Chris Frey, Professor of Engineering at NC State University

Department of the Interior Appointments:

  • Principal Deputy Assistant Sec., Land & Minerals Management: Laura Daniel Davis, former DOI Chief of Staff
  • Director, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management: Amanda Lefton, Assistant Sec. for Energy/Environment for New York

Department of State Appointments:

  • Jonathan Pershing, Special Envoy for Climate Change under Obama
  • Sue Biniaz, Deputy Legal Advisor to State Dept. and lead climate negotiator
  • Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Energy & Environment under Obama
  • Rick Duke, Special Assistant to the President on Climate Change under Obama
  • Senior Adviser to Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change: Varun Sivaram, Sr. Scholar at Columbia Univ. CGEP

Many of Biden’s executive actions in his first weeks in office fall under two buckets: 1. Unwinding rulemaking from his predecessor and 2. Firing the proverbial “starting gun” to initiate rulemaking of his own. A summary of the major actions taken by the Biden Administration so far can be found below:

First Day Actions: Unwinding Trump’s Actions on Climate and Clean Energy
Biden issued a memo to rejoin the Paris Agreement, which starts a 30-day process to formally re-enter; rescinded the Keystone XL pipeline permit; and published a “regulatory freeze” memo halting rulemaking not yet published. He also issued an EO calling for a review of all agency actions taken by the Trump Administration, which calls out specific rules with clear timelines for publishing proposed rescissions/revisions including those laid out below:

  • Methane standards for existing oil and gas operations (by September 2021)
  • Fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks MY 2021-2026 (by July 2021)
  • Building/appliance efficiency standards (appliance standards by June 2021 & buildings by May 2021)
  • Emissions standards for coal plants (by August 2021)
  • Cost and benefits in the Clean Air Act, (“as soon as possible”)
  • Science transparency rule, (“as soon as possible”)

Biden placed a moratorium on Arctic Wildlife Refuge oil and gas leasing and withdrew certain offshore areas in Arctic waters from oil and gas drilling. He established an Interagency Working Group to publish an interim social cost of three greenhouse gases within 30 days (carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane). The interim figures will be used in relevant rulemaking until the final values are set in January 2022. Biden also revoked Trump-era EOs related to infrastructure projects and energy independence. The bulk power system EO is suspended for 90 days and a replacement may be issued. CEQ will also rescind/review/revise Trump NEPA GHG guidance.

See a complete list of Trump rollbacks that Biden may attempt to reverse through executive action or Congress may target through the Congressional Review Act[1].

Climate Day Actions (Jan. 27): Setting the initial markers for the Biden climate and clean energy agenda
On “Climate Day,” President Biden signed three EOs that establish climate change as a key factor in national security and foreign policy decision making, seek to boost union clean energy jobs in an equitable fashion, and restore scientific integrity across the USGOV. Biden will send the Kigali Amendment (which phases down HFCs) to the Senate for ratification and kick-start the process for producing an NDC for the Paris Agreement. He will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit on Earth Day, “to persuade [other countries] to join the U.S. in making more ambitious national pledges, above and beyond the commitments they have already made.” Gina McCarthy signaled the US will announce its NDC under the Paris Agreement on or before the summit. Biden also directed federal agencies to procure carbon-free electricity and zero-emission vehicles, halted new oil and gas leases on public lands, and established a working group on a just transition for coal communities. He also said he would push to electrify the roughly 650,000 vehicles in the USGOV fleet.

Congressional Outlook: Congress has much on its plate, Biden priorities = 1: COVID Relief & 2: Infrastructure/Stimulus
The Democratic trifecta of White House, Senate, and House control opens a new political era for potential climate and clean energy legislation but only through the narrowest Senate majorities. Sen. Manchin will be a critical player in any energy legislation, not only as Chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee but also as the most conservative Democrat in the caucus; he is likely to provide the 50th vote on any energy legislation to come through reconciliation. Other moderate Democrats that may play important roles may include  Sens. Tester (D-MT), Sinema (D-AZ), Kelly (D-AZ), and Hickenlooper (D-CO). Manchin has signaled he wants bipartisan cooperation, and his committee has historically been very bipartisan, especially with the recent passage of major energy legislation for the first time in 13 years. Sen. Murkowski (R-AK), the outgoing Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is a likely prospect to help spearhead bipartisan cooperation along with her fellow moderate colleagues like Sen. Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Romney (R-UT).

It is unclear whether a bipartisan deal that would reach 60 votes in the Senate is possible on potential climate legislation or if Democrats will try to pursue legislation on their own through reconciliation. Regardless, Congress will be very busy with Senate approval of Biden nominees, an impeachment trial, a COVID relief bill, and a stimulus/infrastructure package.

Priority number one for Biden is the $1.9T COVID relief bill, followed by an infrastructure package, which would likely include significant investment in clean energy. Democrats have so far cleared the path to pursue the COVID relief bill through FY 2021 reconciliation, which insulates them from the threat of a Senate filibuster by Republicans. Democrats may pursue a second budget reconciliation package for FY 2022 to advance an infrastructure package as well in the summer. This package would be similar to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which the Obama Administration used to make historic investments in clean energy. Biden’s infrastructure package is all but certain to make clean energy a key pillar.

Biden has signaled he intends to work with Congress in 2021 to enact legislation that “puts the U.S. on an irreversible path to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” We should know much more about how he intends to do this by Earth Day when his Leaders’ Climate Summit takes place.

[1] This law enables a new Congress to quickly undo a regulation created under the previous Administration on its way out the door. Rules finalized after August 21, 2020, can be unwound by Congress with simple majorities in both chambers, but only in the first 60 days of a new session. See a discussion of which rules may be targeted by Congressional Democrats and Biden.