Mon, May 20 2024 20 May, 2024

In run up to the U.S. election, Biden admin rushes to finalise climate rules

Several federal agencies rolled out multiple landmark regulations on the energy sector. Campaigners hailed the “green blitz” as Biden scrambles to finish up work before the U.S. election in November.

An offshore oil rig in Cook Inlet, Alaska (Photo: Paul/Adobe Stock)

In recent weeks, the Biden administration announced a long list of federal regulatory actions, in an effort to solidify action on energy and climate change ahead of the 2024 U.S. election.

In mid- and late-April, federal agencies announced landmark regulations in rapid-fire fashion, unveiling key rules on a near-daily basis.

“It has been a really exciting couple of weeks. Even for us experts really paying attention, it’s almost so much, it’s hard to keep up with,” Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action, a national climate change think tank and advocacy group, said during a media briefing. “The Biden administration is in sort of a green blitz mode.”

Federal regulations can take several years to finalise, so much of the work of the Biden administration on climate change is only now coming to fruition in the president’s fourth year in office.

But importantly, time is also of the essence. Not only does an election loom, but if Republicans retake Congress and the White House, there is an arcane legislative maneuvre that would allow Republicans in early 2025 to quickly and easily repeal federal regulations that were recently enacted. As such, the Biden administration is racing to finish up regulatory actions before a mid-May deadline, which would better insulate federal rules from potential legislative threats next year.

That made April an unusually active month. The Interior Department finalised a decision that blocks oil and gas leasing on 13 million acres of land in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (NPRA). More broadly, Interior finalised a new strategy that elevates conservation and recreational use in decision-making on all public lands, a departure from a century-long approach of prioritising mining and drilling.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a range of actions as well. In March, EPA finalised its highly-anticipated fuel-economy standards for passenger vehicles, which will continue to ratchet up efficiency among the nation’s car fleet. The rules are expected to result in electric vehicles capturing half of all new cars sold by 2032.

On April 19, EPA designated PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances, empowering the government to force chemical companies to pay for clean-up. Known as “forever chemicals” because they never breakdown, PFAS substances have become omnipresent in American life, found in consumer products, in drinking water, and even commonly found in the human body, causing a wide range of health problems. The rules could leave chemical and petrochemical companies with billions of dollars in liabilities.

In April, EPA also announced $7 billion in funding for residential solar programmes in 60 communities across the country. The “Solar for All” programme is expected to connect 900,000 households to solar power.

Not all of the recent announcements advanced climate action however. In April, with much less fanfare, the Biden administration gave formal approval to an enormous crude oil export terminal in Freeport, Texas. The Sea Port Oil Terminal (SPOT) would have the capacity to export 2 million barrels of oil per day. Gas Outlook reported on this project after an initial permit approval in 2022.

“President Biden has again broken promises to protect frontline communities in Surfside and Freeport,” Melanie Oldham, Director of Better Brazoria, a community group in Freeport opposed to the project, said in April after the project was approved. “Why has the Biden Administration again ignored our legitimate concerns? This SPOT Project is not in the public or national interest.”

Power plant rules

Perhaps the most significant action was a series of rules on power plants that EPA finalised in late April. The rules place limits on greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal and new natural gas power plants, requiring a 90 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2032 for power plants expecting to operate beyond 2039. Coal plants planning on retiring before 2039 are exempt.

“Until yesterday, those two sources [existing coal and new gas plants] have never faced a single federal standard limiting their climate pollution,” Charles Harper, a senior policy analyst on electric power at Evergreen Action, told reporters on a media call. He called it a “common sense” initiative that leaves utilities with plenty of time to comply.

Calling the power plant rules “historic and huge,” California Representative Ro Khanna said the rules are “basically going to require all of the utilities to transition to renewable energy,” and will help keep the U.S. on track to fully decarbonise the grid by 2035.

There are disagreements about the likelihood of that scenario, but undoubtedly, the rules are of enormous significance. Technically, the regulations allow coal and gas plants to continue to operate for years to come if they equip themselves with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or some other form of emissions reduction technologies.

But in practical terms, because CCS is inordinately expensive, the new rules could force the closure of many of the country’s coal-fired power plants in the coming years, and prevent new gas plants from getting off the ground.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group representing the nation’s largest utilities that has historically opposed environmental regulations on power plants, criticised the regulations and said that CCS is neither ready nor economically competitive.

“While we appreciate and support EPA’s work to develop a clear, continued path for the transition to cleaner resources, we are disappointed that the agency did not address the concerns we raised about carbon capture and storage (CCS),” (EEI) President and CEO Dan Brouillette said in a statement. “CCS is not yet ready for full-scale, economy-wide deployment, nor is there sufficient time to permit, finance, and build the CCS infrastructure needed for compliance by 2032.”

Notably, EPA did not include existing gas-fired power plants in the electricity sector in their new regulations — the carbon emissions standards only apply to newly-proposed gas plants. Gas is the largest source of electricity generation in the U.S., making up 43 percent of the total, and will continue to be a major source of electricity generation for a while longer, even as renewables continue to capture growing market share.

On top of that, EPA finalised several regulations on coal waste, and mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.

Experts said the power plant rules are one of the Biden administration’s crowning achievements on climate policy.

“Coal plants may only be providing about 15 percent of our electricity, but they emitted 55 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector just last year. So, they are very polluting,” said Mary Anne Hitt, a senior director at Climate Imperative, a climate foundation.

“These rules — in addition to the Inflation Reduction Act — are one of the most important steps we have taken as a nation to close the gap to meet our climate goals.”

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