Long before the Texas energy crisis renewed calls for dramatic action, President Biden was getting high marks right now from a climate movement that was far from enthusiastic about him during the 2020 primaries. A wide range of activists, academics and policy wonks who spent four years planning for a post-Trump reality are almost unified in their enthusiasm about Biden’s early moves.
But while everyone agrees there’s considerable work ahead, is the celebration of Biden’s climate agenda premature?
The White House’s release of a series of climate-focused executive orders and its push to spotlight climate are fueling much of the euphoria. Still, many of the recent announcements are a mix of aspiration (the hope to establish a green jobs-focused Civilian Climate Corps) and a renewal of Obama-era policies (blocking the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris Agreement).
Beneath the surface, however, there are signs that the Biden White House will not go far enough in rejecting Obama-style “all of the above” energy policies, which amounted to huge giveaways to the fossil fuel industry.
Biden’s executive order on public lands is revealing. Before its release, news reports and insider chatter billed it as a halt to all permitting and drilling, in keeping with Biden’s unambiguous campaign rhetoric: “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”
But the actual order isn’t a period, it’s a semicolon. The confusion is understandable; advance reports portrayed it as a “wide-ranging moratorium” on new leases, and it was unveiled right after the White House announced a temporary suspension of both leases and drilling permits on public land (though that policy has loopholes). When it finally arrived, the actual executive order only paused the leasing program for some indeterminate period while the administration reviews it.
Most tellingly, the White House boasted that there will be plenty of fossil fuel drilling for years to come. Indeed, the order was accompanied by an announcement that existing leases and permits — stockpiled by the industry under Trump — would be untouched. To drive home the point, Biden reiterated that he absolutely, positively does not support a ban on fracking.
That adamantly pro-fossil fuels position has been echoed by other administration officials. In written materials submitted for her Senate confirmation hearing, Energy Secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm voiced support for exporting fossil fuels (in the form of liquified natural gas, or LNG). Boosting LNG exports means an increase in fracking in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio — creating a host of serious public health problems — along with building massive new facilities to handle these exports, presumably for decades to come. A White House committed to solving the climate crisis would be breaking with these Obama/Trump priorities, not extending them.
The administration is also backing a suite of policies that cleverly masquerades as climate action. Officials are touting plans to create new ‘carbon markets’ in the agricultural industries which would let financial speculators and corporate polluters team up to monetize soil practices that increase carbon removal (which is extremely difficult to measure in the first place). The point of all of this is to allow fossil fuel corporations to purchase ‘carbon credits’ from farmers instead of actually reducing their own pollution.
The same can be said of enthusiasm for carbon capture schemes; they sound great in theory, but the technology, to the extent it works, is used to pump more oil out of the ground — the opposite of climate action. Several high-profile carbon capture projects have been shuttered recently, mostly because relying on ‘market incentives’ to coax compliance from fossil fuel corporations is a fool’s errand. If these companies can’t find a way to make the numbers work, they’re not going to bother disturbing their business model.
Increasing the amount of drilling to send fracked gas overseas, or creating accounting tricks that conceal our continued reliance on fossil fuels, aren’t climate progress. We know what needs to be done. In addition to massive green jobs programs and a real plan to clean up our power and transportation sectors, we need firm policies that rapidly phase out the supply of climate-destroying fossil fuels.
While relief and optimism regarding Biden’s first weeks in office after the Trump years is understandable, enthusiasm for tepid policies must be tempered with a dose of reality. Biden officials have polished talking points on climate, but they’re also proving that we need to pay attention to what they do, not what they say. It’s time to re-cork the champagne.