The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Biden's climate diplomacy has already begun

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

A few days after being declared president-elect, Joe Biden is already conferring with heads of state about a crisis he sees as on par with the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession: climate change.

Biden elevated the issue of rising temperatures in talks on Tuesday with four European leaders. 

Biden and his soon-to-be counterparts in Great Britain, France, Germany and Ireland discussed tackling climate change in separate calls, according to a readout from the transition team. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to working with Biden on climate change during a Monday call. 

The early diplomatic discussions suggest a swift about-face on climate change under Biden.

The discussions come just days after the United States formally pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. President Trump regarded the accord, which had nearly 200 countries setting voluntary goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as a bad deal. 

In a sign of the change to come, Biden told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson his administration will participate a global climate conference next year in Glasgow, Scotland. The Trump administration was set to snub the talks if the president won reelection. Biden has promised to reenter the Paris agreement on “day one.”

During the campaign, the former vice president sought to distinguish himself from other Democrats by arguing his negotiating skills would be crucial to convincing other countries to cut their own emissions — a necessary step to strive to keep warming under dangerous levels. 

The dozens of world leaders congratulating Biden highlights how his team is moving forward with becoming commander in chief even as Trump and some other Republicans refuse to acknowledge his win. 

But the talks are already revealing some key tensions — with Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline. The project was put forward more than a decade ago as a way from bringing Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. The proposal became been flashpoint for environmentalists who tried under Barack Obama to stop it.

During the campaign in May, Biden said he would rescind a Trump administration permit for the pipeline. At the time, Trudeau responded by saying he would press any U.S. leader to approve the project. 

Biden also named teams to lead the transition at federal agencies.

Even as the Trump administration instructs senior leaders to block cooperation with Biden's team resources, the president-elect's camp moved ahead released a list of 500 experts in federal policy to prepare for Jan. 20. The group is a mix of activists, academics, think tank politicos, Obama alumni and officials from blue states. 

The head of the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency is Patrice Simms, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that as sued the Trump administration dozens of times. His elevation is a sign of Biden's desire to reinstitute rules rolled back by the Trump administration. He has also worked at both the EPA and Department of Justice. 

For the Interior Department team, the transition will be run by Kevin Washburn, a former assistant secretary of Indian affairs and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma — a choice that suggests an emphasis on tribal issues at the department. He is currently dean at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Arun Majumdar will head the transition for the Energy Department. Under Obama, he was the first director of the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, an incubator of research and development on novel energy technologies that draws bipartisan support in Congress. He is now at a professor at Stanford.

And Cecilia Martinez, a well-respected environmental justice advocate, will lead the transition at the Council on Environmental Quality in a signal the Biden administration will focus on the disproportionate impact pollution has on people of color. 

Power plays

The Senate proposed spending increases for Interior, Energy despite a White House proposal for budget cuts.

“The Republican-led Senate is proposing modest spending increases for environmental agencies compared to last year’s budget, diverging from proposed cuts that the Trump White House put forward earlier this year,” the Hill reports.

Lawmakers in the Senate Appropriations Committee have proposed increasing funding for the Interior Department to $9.09 billion from $9.06 billion. The legislation would include funding increases for the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The Energy Department could also see its funding go up by about $3.45 billion.

“The push by Congress to increase funding for the agencies comes after the White House in February called for cutting the EPA’s budget by 26 percent, the Interior budget by 16 percent and the Energy Department budget by 8 percent,” the Hill writes.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department and environmental agencies, however, said that the funding falls short of what is needed. Udall also objected to a provision in the bill that would prevent sage grouse from receiving endangered species protection. 

The Trump administration submitted a belated list of priority conservation projects to Congress, amid backlash.

The Interior Department’s list of projects that will receive money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund came to Congress a week after the deadline, E&E News reports. “The submission, however, may not resolve widespread frustration, concern and skepticism about the outgoing Trump administration's commitment to implementing its signature conservation legislation, which it signed into law in August,” E&E News writes.

Environmental advocates have criticized the lists, saying that they are incomplete and include programs funded by state grants under allocations that should go toward federal programs. Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized the lists for arriving late. 

In the end, it’s likely that the Senate Appropriations Committee will act as a final arbiter on the conservation funding. 

“The list from the Department of the Interior is useful input, although Senator Manchin would have preferred it came earlier and had more details,” said Sam Runyon, spokeswoman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking Democrat Joe Manchin III (W.Va.). “The Appropriations Committee, on which he sits, will step in to provide those details and determine the final allocations." 

The Federal Reserve for the first time identified climate change as a risk to financial stability.

“The Fed’s quarterly financial stability report, released after stock markets closed on Monday, said climate change can produce storms, floods, droughts or wildfires that ‘can quickly alter, or reveal new information about, future economic conditions or the value of real or financial assets,’” Market Watch reports.

Lael Brainard, a Fed governor who has been floated as a possible treasury secretary pick in a Biden administration, called the move “vitally important.” 

But other countries and central banks have been far more active on climate change. The British government announced Monday that it would introduce mandatory climate-related financial disclosures across the economy by 2025, while the European Central Bank has purchased green bonds to finance environmental projects.


Cal Fire is working on new maps to determine wildfire risks in California.

The last time the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection created a map delineating the areas at greatest risk of fire was in 2007, but the agency has been working on a new model over the past two years that will take into account climate change, Bloomberg News reports. There are currently 2.2 million homes in the severe fire zone, but that number could increase dramatically with new maps — a change that could have a major impact on homeowners and insurance companies.

“A severe hazard zone for fires is similar to a severe hazard zone for floods. The government draws the boundaries, and any new developments within them are required to submit to unforgiving building codes and are subject to steep risk-based increases to their insurance premiums,” it reports. “This is the kind of thing that determines where people try to build and live, much more so than even the most dire — yet still somehow abstract — long-term projections of global warming.”

Meanwhile, insurance companies have been pushing to use private models of fire risk to set premiums, a prospect that has faced fierce opposition from consumers. California regulators currently limit the extent to which insurers can set their own rates, resulting in the state having the 46th-lowest insurance costs relative to home prices, Bloomberg writes. 

Oil check

Canada’s second-largest bank says it will no longer finance oil and gas activities in the Arctic.

TD Bank said the move is part of a plan to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

“The bank’s move signals the start of a shift for Canadian lenders that have largely continued to support the fossil fuel industry even as global counterparts have distanced themselves from parts of the sector,” Reuters reports. The Arctic Circle “is warming significantly faster than the rest of our planet, which poses the risk of increased green-house gas releases and further warming,” the bank said in a statement.

Oil and gas CEOs played down fears about the Biden administration.

“We are not as worried as some people are,” Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub said during Abu Dhabi's virtual ADIPEC conference, according to World Oil. The Biden administration’s energy policy “will be workable for us,” Hollub said. She expressed optimism that the Biden administration would emphasize carbon capture and said she expected many regulations would align with where the industry was already headed.

And Patrick Pouyanne, head of the French oil and gas company Total, said that he saw opportunities for renewables and natural gas. The French company owns a stake in California-based renewables company SunPower, according to S&P Global.