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How Biden could help U.S. reach climate goals on his own

A new report published Monday outlines a slew of executive actions the Biden administration could take to combat climate change.

The Inflation Reduction Act gives President Biden some important tools to combat climate change, but a new report suggests that he could also use executive actions to help in that effort. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

While the Inflation Reduction Act will help make a significant cut in U.S. emissions, estimates suggest it won’t be enough to help the country reach its climate targets. President Biden’s use of executive action, experts say, will be a key element in driving further change.

“We absolutely are going to need all hands on deck — states, the federal government, everyone that can do something,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, deputy director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are some really big, bold actions, though, that Biden can take and can get us pretty far.”

The Biden administration has already undertaken dozens of executive actions on climate, but a new report out Monday details what could lie ahead. Activists are pushing White House officials, who are eager to mobilize the party’s base in the November election and are less worried about alienating centrist lawmakers over energy policy, to do more.

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The 99-page report, published by the Revolving Door Project, an initiative of the liberal think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, lays out potential executive branch policies available under current law even without the declaration of a climate emergency, which could open up some additional powers.

“We’re trying to advocate for this administration to take seriously a whole-of-government approach to a crisis of apocalyptic proportions,” said Toni Aguilar Rosenthal, a researcher with the Revolving Door Project and one of the report’s authors. “There exists massive, but wildly underutilized, authorities that could do real good for real people today. We’re asking the administration to do that, to take those steps right now and to service that crisis, to meet it where it is.”

For its part, the Biden administration made it clear it’s ready to shift some of its focus away from working with Congress. The White House on Friday announced major changes to its top climate team, a move toward using executive authority to reach the president’s climate targets.

At least one independent analysis from the research firm Rhodium Group suggests that with executive action, it may be possible to reach Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. According to Rhodium, a “joint-action scenario” that includes state-level measures, congressional passage of certain legislation, and regulations and other executive branch actions would reduce emissions by 45 to 51 percent below 2005 levels. That analysis assessed the potential impact of the Build Back Better Act, which had more sweeping climate policies than the legislation Biden signed last month, but John Larsen, a partner with Rhodium, said the emissions estimates should mostly hold true.

“With the IRA in law, the next place to look for the big ticket items, so to speak, like the next set of high-impact opportunities, is going to be the executive branch,” Larsen said.

Republicans and conservative groups are likely to challenge many new federal climate policies in court, and they have scored some key victories on that front.

And Larsen and other experts emphasized that there are limits to what executive action can achieve alone.

“Executive action and very creatively using executive authority as forcefully as possible is not sufficient in itself to solve the climate crisis, to bring the United States in line with its climate goals,” said Max Moran, a research director at the Revolving Door Project. But, he noted, “it is an absolutely necessary part of the puzzle.”

Here are some of the executive actions the White House and relevant agencies can take, as well as their possible impacts on the climate.

Environmental Protection Agency

It’s critical, Moran said, for the Clean Air Act to be used “as much as possible.”

The Revolving Door Project report, in part, calls on the EPA to use that law to close loopholes that allow oil and gas companies to underreport emissions. Additionally, the report suggests lowering the threshold for required reporting, meaning more facilities would need to report their methane emissions.

“Methane, at least in the short term, is one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck targets for climate policy,” said Colin Murphy, deputy director of the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy at the University of California at Davis, who was not involved in the report.

Murphy said as more research on methane sources is conducted, “the more we realize it’s a relatively small handful of really high-volume emitters that are driving a big chunk of the methane profile, and so going after those might be something that executive action could do.”

Larsen noted the EPA is already working on rules targeting methane emissions from oil and gas operations, greenhouse gas standards for power plants and more standards for light-duty vehicle emissions.

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These rules, he said, “all have the potential for additional emission reductions beyond what we modeled the IRA could achieve.” A Rhodium analysis estimates that methane regulations, for example, could reduce emissions 100 to 250 million metric tons by 2030.

Another option is for the EPA to “set a national science-based cap on greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act,” Golden-Krasner said, though this would likely invite a court challenge. The Center for Biological Diversity has also published reports detailing executive actions available to Biden with and without the declaration of a climate emergency.

A greenhouse gas emissions cap, she said, is “going to get us a significant amount of reductions,” adding that it’s “flexible. It allows the states to figure out how they’re going to meet the standards.”

Experts also noted the Clean Water Act can be used to address critical environmental concerns, though some acknowledged the law may not play as significant a role in reducing emissions.

Department of Energy

The new report, in part, urges the Energy Department to use its Loan Programs Office to support clean energy projects and discourages the office from using “its authority to assist fossil fuel efforts, even if they are branded as ‘innovative fossil energy technologies.’”

The new climate law authorizes another $40 billion in loan guarantees for energy innovations, along with $3.6 billion to cover the costs of the risks associated with this new lending.

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It’s important to “make sure that clean energy projects actually have a level playing field versus coal-powered electricity,” said Aidan Smith, one of the report’s authors and a senior adviser at Data for Progress, a liberal think tank.

The report also calls on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to prioritize finalizing proposed rules on transmission lines, noting that the country’s transmission infrastructure needs to have the capacity to support potential clean energy projects.

Department of Agriculture

The report out Monday suggests the Agriculture Department could pursue antitrust actions “against hyper-pollutive, extractive, and exploitative Big Ag firms.”

“There exists broad authority within the USDA to engage in enforcement actions in corporate wrongdoing and other malfeasance there that just hasn’t been pursued, and that has really dire consequences for rural communities and for farmers and for the vast majority of the physical land of the United States,” Revolving Door’s Aguilar Rosenthal said. “Cracking down on those crimes is, I think, a very easy … place to start.”

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Department of Justice

The report also encourages increasing the number of civil and criminal cases brought against those who violate environmental laws.

“The point of environmental enforcement is supposed to be deterrence,” Moran said.

But keep in mind that many courts are backlogged, Murphy said. “What you need is more resources going to create more courts and more judges and more lawyers in those spaces. That’s not a quick thing.”

Executive action, Murphy said, could help start that process.

Declaring a climate emergency

The Revolving Door Project report details what is possible without an emergency declaration — but some experts say that such a proclamation could be helpful.

Here's what could happen if Biden declares a climate emergency

Not only does declaring a climate emergency have symbolic value, but it also would allow the president to unlock certain emergency executive powers, Golden-Krasner said.

A February report from the Center for Biological Diversity laid out climate emergency executive actions Biden could take, which in part include halting crude oil exports; limiting oil and gas drilling in federal waters; restricting international trade and private investment in fossil fuels; and directing agencies to boost renewable-energy sources.

While some policy experts argue that the declaration of a climate emergency could be game-changing, others say the potential impacts are less certain.

“The emergency declaration might be able to help on the margin,” Larsen said. “But there’s no guarantee it is actually able to help him drive the transformational change we need to see to get to the emission reduction targets.”

Takeaways and limitations

The latest report on possible executive action aims to highlight the importance of thinking of the executive branch “in a holistic sense,” Moran said. “The climate crisis literally already is changing every aspect of human society, so every aspect of the government, every single agency, should be looking through its legal mandates and legal powers and thinking about how that applies to climate and what they can do.”

But experts emphasized that executive authority does have limitations — for example, Murphy said, one major obstacle is the amount of time it typically takes for any action to lead to change.

The federal government can “certainly do something,” he said, “but it’s not like the Biden administration could issue an executive order and within a month have a radically different enforcement regime and a radically different slate of outcomes.”

Instead, Murphy compared it to turning the Titanic.

“They can tell the rudder to go one way,” he said, “but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take a lot of other parts of the government apparatus working in concert with it.”

Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.

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