The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Biden pleases some once leery liberals with new climate plan

with Paulina Firozi

Joe Biden has won over some left-leaning parts of the Democratic coalition skeptical of his bid for president with a new climate plan.

As Matt Viser and I report, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee unveiled a proposal Tuesday pledging to eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and spend $2 trillion to turbocharge the clean energy economy. 

His plan, much of which would require the consent of Congress, would put the United States on a 15-year timeline for a 100 percent clean electricity standard and is aimed at the twin goals of rebuilding the economy and fighting climate change. 

“We’re not just going to tinker around the edges,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Del. “We’re going to make historic investments and seize the opportunity and meet this moment in history.”

By issuing a plan more ambitious than anything he has previously proposed, Biden won praise from progressive environmentalists.

“It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President’s Biden’s plans and commitments in the past,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, which backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the primary. “Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms: dramatically increasing the scale and urgency of investments, filling in details on how he’d achieve environmental justice and create good union jobs, and promising immediate action.”

Many of Biden’s proposals build on the recommendations of a task force made up jointly of allies of Biden and Sanders. Those recommendations include plans to dramatically expand solar and wind energy capacity, including the installation of 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines.

The ratcheted-up targets came after Biden faced pressure from young left-leaning activists and major environmental groups to do more to address what they see as a generational crisis.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, praised Biden for going “further than the strong plan he put out last summer,” saying public polling shows voters have an appetite for action.

The big-spending League of Conservation Voters, which pumped more than $80 million into the 2018 election, endorsed Biden in April only after he promised to toughen his climate plan.

Biden, if anything, is responding to a new political climate. Climate change was a top-tier issue in the 2020 Democratic race after years of being a political afterthought. In exit polling, Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada ranked it second only to health care.

Biden is embracing a more direct — and potentially more politically palatable — approach than Barack Obama took a decade ago.

During his first year in office, Obama worked with congressional Democrats on a cap-and-trade system, in which companies buy and sell credits permitting them to release carbon into the atmosphere.

But the measure proved politically toxic. It passed the House but was never given a vote in the Senate.

Instead, Biden wants to require electric utilities to get more of their power from carbon-free sources — including wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric — and to improve the energy efficiency of their systems or face penalties.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made his pitch to combat the climate crisis in a speech on July 14, targeting President Trump’s rollbacks. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s built on a smart approach that’s already been tested in the states,” said Dan Reicher, a former Energy Department official who co-founded Clean Energy for Biden, which is fundraising for the campaign. “It will be less controversial than a national cap-and-trade system or carbon tax, with real prospects for bipartisan support.”

Similar standards have proved to be politically viable at the state level. A majority of states — including several conservative ones such as Montana, Iowa and Texas — have imposed their own renewable energy requirements on local utilities. But no standard exists at the federal level.

Biden also proposed upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes over four years, which his campaign estimates would create 1 million jobs. Homeowners would be given cash rebates to upgrade home appliances and install more efficient windows. Car owners would receive rebates to swap their old, less efficient cars for newer ones that release fewer pollutants.

He also said he would create a new “Environmental and Climate Justice Division” within the Justice Department to prosecute anti-pollution cases. “These aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams,” he said. “These are actionable policies that we can get to work on right away.”

President Trump's campaign was quick to call Biden a job killer for the new climate plan.

“His plan is more like a socialist manifesto that promises to massively raise taxes, eliminate jobs in the coal, oil or natural gas industries, and crush the middle class,” said Hogan Gidley, the campaign’s national press secretary. “He’s pushing extreme policies that would smother the economy just when it’s showing signs of roaring back.”

Trump, a strong backer of fossil fuels, has sought to roll back Obama-era policies aimed at decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and setting new standards for household items such as lightbulbs. He has also downplayed the science behind climate change, and in 2017 he pledged to pull the United States out of the Paris climate pact — a move Biden said he would quickly reverse. 

Trump’s embrace of the coal industry was one of his signature issues in 2016, part of his portrait of Hillary Clinton as disdainful of the country’s industrial workers. It’s not clear whether Trump can successfully level similar attacks against Biden, or whether the political landscape has shifted to make that difficult.

In 2016, Republicans attacked Clinton for her comment that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” though Clinton was suggesting this would happen because of market forces, not as part of her plans.

Trump, meanwhile, pledged to revive the ailing coal industry, telling miners in West Virginia that “we are going to get those mines open” if he were elected. But the coal industry has continued to struggle under Trump, largely because of competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

Read more here:

Biden, in new climate plan, embraces more aggressive steps (Matt Viser and Dino Grandoni)

Power plays

The House is expected to greenlight a plan next week to address a Park Service maintenance backlog and preserve millions of acres of land. 

The plan would invest nearly $2 billion a year to restore national parks, conserve land to address climate impacts and add parks and playgrounds in areas that are lacking in such resources. 

“The Great American Outdoors Act, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate by a 73-to-25 vote on June 17, has been called one of the most important environmental bills in history because it could nearly eliminate a $12 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for the first time since it was enacted in the 1960s,” Darryl Fears and I report. “… The vote comes as temperatures in the United States and elsewhere have increased 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the point at which experts warn of dangerous and irreversible damage to the planet. A recent United Nations report warned that 1 million plants and animals are threatened with extinction because of human activities.” 

“Congress coming together to pass this act would address two fundamental crises the world faces at once — catastrophic climate change and the loss of biodiversity,” said Sharon Buccino, senior director of the lands division at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s really about delivering natural climate solutions. … We have to look at how we’re managing land. What the LWCF piece of the act does is address the problem of losing too much of nature to pavement and pollution.” 

Trump will make changes to the National Environmental Policy Act this week to speed up pipelines and other projects. 

The environmental law, which President Richard M. Nixon signed in 1970 and which poor and minority communities around the country have used for decades to halt projects that threaten to pollute their neighborhoods, could now push companies “to complete even the most exhaustive environmental reviews within two years and restrict the extent to which they could consider a project’s full impact on the climate,” my colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. The president plans to streamline the law to make it easier to build highways, pipelines, chemical plants and other projects that pose environmental risks. 

“Trump is scheduled to announce the changes on Wednesday in Atlanta, as part of his effort to revive the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic,” they add. “But the proposed changes also threaten to rob the public, in particular marginalized communities most affected by such projects, of their ability to impact decisions that could affect their health, according to many activists.” 

The Trump administration undervalued the cost of climate change to justify the price of deregulation, a federal report found. 

The report from the Government Accountability Office “estimated the harm that global warming will cause future generations to be seven times lower than previous federal estimates,” the New York Times reports. “Reducing that metric, known as the ‘social cost of carbon,’ has helped the administration massage cost-benefit analyses, particularly for rules that allow power plants and automobiles to emit more planet-warming carbon dioxide.” 

For example, the GAO pointed to the Trump administration’s estimates when it released its own rules for regulating power plant emissions, saying the cost of climate damages were between $1 and $7 per ton of carbon. The report said the administration only factored U.S. damages and noted that “the current federal estimates, based on domestic climate damages, are about seven times lower than the prior federal estimates that were based on global damages.”

A federal appellate court has granted temporary relief to the Dakota Access pipeline developers. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a short-term stay to halt an order shutting down the oil project. 

The court “granted Dakota Access, controlled by Energy Transfer, an administrative stay while it considers whether the line, long opposed by local tribes and environmental activists, should be shut due to permitting issues dating to 2017,” Reuters reports. “Tuesday’s ruling means oil can keep flowing through the 570,000-barrel-per-day pipeline, which runs from North Dakota’s oil production fields to Midwest and Gulf Coast refineries.” 

A storm-spotting app from NOAA was temporarily suspended last week following numerous recent false reports. 

The “citizen science” application is meant to aid in meteorologists’ awareness of ongoing severe weather, Matthew Cappucci reports. But in addition to false reports, Twitter users noted that flooding reports on the app in New Mexico and Texas’ Big Bend area appeared to form the shape of a swastika.

“The mPING initiative was implemented in 2012 as a way to crowdsource storm reports from the general public. The mPING app does not require users to pass any sort of background examination in meteorology, but the observations can prove useful in fast-changing, potentially life-threatening severe-weather situations,” he adds. “… NOAA believes that the false data was made possible by “spoofing” GPS data — when a perpetrator manually overrides the place where their electronic device believes it is located, said Keli Pirtle, spokeswoman for NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory.” 

Coronavirus fallout

Automakers are back to work at full speed, but it’s not clear how long that pace can last. 

Some workers say carmakers should suspend production in areas where infections are surging, and in some places workers aren’t showing up for shifts because of concerns over the virus’s spread, the New York Times reports.

“Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor, General Motors, Honda, Toyota and other manufacturers are now running almost all of their plants in the United States on two or three shifts, which amounts to full capacity,” per the report. “… But conditions are changing fast. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Monday ordered restaurants, wineries, movie theaters and other businesses to halt indoor operations. He stopped short of closing factories — such as the Tesla plant in Fremont, which employs some 10,000 workers — but he suggested that he was open to restricting economic activity further if the pandemic worsened.” 

The administration’s efforts to ease environmental regulations have worsened the impact of the pandemic, according to a new report. 

The analysis from the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law pointed to the administration’s rollback of multiple regulations related to air pollution, power plants, ozone and particulate matter, HuffPost reports. It said the administration’s efforts were a “harbinger of the U.S. outbreak” and “exacerbated” many factors of the pandemic. 

“Air pollution disproportionately affects low-income populations and communities of color, and several recent studies suggest that people exposed to poor air quality have a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, suffering serious illness from it and dying of COVID-19,” per the report. “Similarly, the Trump administration has worked to cut food benefits and weaken school nutrition standards, and in 2017 delayed enforcement of stricter rules for electronic cigarettes and cigars. As the report notes, preliminary health studies have found that smoking, diabetes, obesity and other health issues put people at greater risk of severe COVID-19 infection.” 


The Great Lakes are seeing temperature records that could continue to climb. 

The water over Lakes Erie and Ontario is the warmest it’s been since records began, and the temperatures could continue to increase, Jason Samenow and Cappucci report.

“The abnormally warm waters, consistent with climate-change trends in recent decades, could compromise water quality and harm marine life in some areas,” they add. “Surface water temperatures averaged over all of the Great Lakes, except the deep and choppy Lake Superior, have risen well into the 70s while Lake Erie has flirted with 80 degrees. That’s about the same water temperature as the surf off Virginia Beach.” 

Burger King has a new plan for addressing its contribution to the climate crisis. 

The fast-food company said it will add lemongrass to its cows’ diets and said it can decrease a cow’s daily methane emission by about a third, the Associated Press reports.  

The burger joint released a short music video promoting the new policy:

“Cows emit methane as a by-product of their digestion, and that has become a potential public relations hurdle for major burger chains,” per the report. “Greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector made up 9.9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that amount, methane emissions from livestock (called enteric fermentation) comprised more than a quarter of the emissions from the agriculture sector.”