Biden win ushers in seismic energy policy shift

Source: By Lesley Clark, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 9, 2020

Joe Biden was declared president-elect Saturday, giving him the opportunity to reverse President Trump’s boost of the fossil fuels industry and invest in green energy to tackle climate change.

Biden passed the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency after being declared the winner in Pennsylvania.

His plan to address global warming with sweeping legislation may not be possible without Democratic control of the Senate — which could turn with two Georgia runoffs Jan. 5 — but he will be able to take significant steps through executive action and the power of the presidency.

Even without a Democratic majority in the Senate, the prospects of a Biden presidency lifted hopes among environmentalists and renewable energy advocates that the U.S. would speed up a transition away from fossil fuels.

“Now the White House can finally get back to leading the charge against the central environmental crisis of our time,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noting Biden’s climate plan — though short of the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal — is set to be the strongest ever pursued by a U.S. president.

“Now it’s time to turn promises into progress, with policy solutions and sound investments that cut climate pollution, create millions of good-paying jobs, protect the health of our people, and advance justice and equity for us all.”

The race between Biden and Trump presented the starkest divisions on energy issues in recent memory, with Biden proposing a $2 trillion clean energy plan and denouncing Trump for downplaying the threat posed by climate change. Trump, in turn, pledged to continue to pursue an “energy dominance” agenda.

Biden claimed a mandate to act as he delivered a victory speech Saturday night in Wilmington, Del., citing climate change, health care, the pandemic, a slumping economy and racial justice as critical crises facing the country.

The American people had called on him, Biden said, “to marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.”

His campaign spelled out some of his priorities on a website, citing an “opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy — one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”

Biden has pledged that soon after taking office Jan. 20, he will rejoin the Paris climate agreement that Trump rejected, and leaders across the globe mentioned climate as they congratulated Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“Looking forward to extending our cooperation and friendship under your presidency,” Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou wrote on Twitter. “Welcoming the U.S. again to the #ParisAgreement on climate change is the first step!”

Fatih Birol, executive director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, wrote that he hoped to work with Biden and Harris to help the U.S. “meet its energy and climate goals and speed up global energy transitions.”

At home, the renewable industry welcomed the win.

“The election of President Biden puts the offshore wind energy industry on the precipice of substantial growth with the support of an administration that promises to put significant focus back on renewable energy, offshore wind among the beneficiaries,” said Liz Burdock, CEO of the Business Network for Offshore Wind.

No sign of Trump concession

The declaration that Biden won followed days of uncertainty and ballot counting after Trump took an early lead in several battleground states. That edge began to diminish as an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots — many coming from voters concerned about in-person voting during the pandemic — were counted.

Trump, who was at his Virginia golf course when national TV networks called the race, spent yesterday tweeting unproven allegations of voter fraud that Twitter flagged as disputed.

Several Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said Trump should not concede the election at this time.

“We’re not finished yet,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Toomey noted that there could still be a recount in Pennsylvania and that Trump and his voters “deserve to have this process play out.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who did not vote for Trump, told Fox News yesterday that Republicans will work with Biden but argued that the presidential election was more about personality and character than policy, noting that congressional Republicans gained seats.

“Conservative principles are still on the ascendancy in this country,” Romney said. “I don’t think America wants to sign up for the Green New Deal or getting rid of coal and oil and gas.”

And not every Democrat backs efforts to limit fossil fuels. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), for instance, is likely to continue as the top Democrat on the influential Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“The Biden energy plan … is going to be all-inclusive,” Manchin said yesterday on “Face the Nation.” “We’re going to use coal, and we’re going to use gas, and we’re going to use oil, and we’re going to be able to use our renewables and be able to develop the fuels of the future.”

George W. Bush, the only living former Republican president, said in a statement that he had called Biden and Harris and offered his congratulations.

“Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country,” Bush said.

Wariness in the oil patch

Still, oil and gas interests view Biden’s win as a potential setback to an industry that had its interests championed over the last four years.

“Biden’s track record on energy should scare anyone that cares about the country and its future. It is a disaster,” oil billionaire Harold Hamm wrote in an opinion piece in the National Review last month.

Hamm, who became a billionaire while President Obama was in office, told investors on a call Friday — when Biden was on track to win — that because Republicans had seemingly held the Senate and added House seats, the industry would be better suited to keep the next administration “at bay.”

“We’ll have our work cut out for us if it goes that way,” he said, complaining that the industry had “suffered death by 1,000 cuts” during the Obama administration.

“But, you know, we’re used to playing that game,” he added. “It’ll be up to us again, to do that again.”

And analysts were quick to note that without a 60-vote Senate supermajority — or an elimination of the filibuster — Biden’s administration would be largely constrained from far-reaching action against the industry.

“At his core, Biden is more moderate than the left of his party, and there will be room to work with his administration,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance in Denver. She noted oil and natural gas now meet about 70% of U.S. energy needs, “and in the absence of a viable alternative, he’s stuck with us for the entirety of his presidency and well into the future.”

“As with the Obama administration, reality does prevail, and there are ample opportunities to work productively to ensure Americans’ energy needs are met,” she said.

The investment bank UBS Group AG, in an energy research note before the election was called, noted that investors were looking at a Biden presidency with a Republican-held Senate and “broadly concluding that big changes are unlikely.”

“We don’t see significant changes outside of some local specifics on the infrastructure and permitting side,” UBS analysts wrote.

The key influences shaping the energy industry are likely to remain market forces — just as they were under Trump and Obama, said Ed Crooks, vice chair for the Americas at the research group Wood Mackenzie.

Crooks, though, said he expected a boost for offshore wind. Trump routinely bashed wind turbines as “bird graveyards,” and the administration slowed the process of approving offshore wind and proposed closing the coastline from Florida to Virginia.

“A Biden administration will act faster to support states and companies seeking to develop offshore wind industries,” he said.

The administration is poised to increase support for electric vehicles as well, with tighter fuel economy standards likely to help their sales, Crooks said.

“By 2030, there could be 4 million EVs on U.S. roads as a result of those standards, almost 60% more than if the Trump administration’s rules had taken effect,” he said. Still, he noted that would represent only about 1.5% of the total 275 million vehicles expected on U.S. roads by 2030.

Executive orders, rules

Environmentalists said Biden would have considerable opportunity to use the executive authority of the White House to set standards and direct federal investment dollars toward technology in areas like battery storage.

He could also look to boost green energy plans in economic stimulus or infrastructure legislation as the country seeks to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. Environmentalists are also pressing him to appoint a “climate czar” to coordinate federal climate policies.

Other high-profile steps could include blocking new drilling leases on federal land and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and recertifying California’s authority to implement its own fuel economy standards, the consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group said in a chart outlining energy steps Biden could take without a Democratic Senate.

The Trump administration rolled back Obama-era rules clamping down on methane leakage from oil and gas wells and equipment. Biden would probably try to restore such limits.

And Rapidan notes Biden, who has embraced calls to address environmental justice, could require increased say from local communities as part of the National Environmental Policy Act process.

Biden could also reverse what critics say is a troubling Trump administration trend to disregard energy efficiency standards. Advocates have taken the administration to court for failing to update efficiency standards for 25 household products, and updates for another 25 products are due over the next four years. Biden has called for boosting the manufacturing of energy-efficient appliances.

“His election offers the United States a historic opportunity to use energy efficiency to deliver the urgent and bold action needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Buildings account for some 40% of global energy use, and Nadel estimated efficiency measures could halve U.S. carbon emissions by midcentury.

The Rapidan chart, however, also spells out what Biden would not be able to do without a Democratic Senate, including revoking industry-friendly fossil fuel tax provisions or restoring the federal tax credit for purchasers of EVs — which Trump helped quash.

Fracking and offshore drilling

Trump spent the last week of the campaign warning voters in energy-rich Pennsylvania that Biden’s plan would “outlaw mining, explode energy costs and destroy Pennsylvania.” Trump’s campaign even singled out Lady Gaga — a Biden supporter — for once telling her followers about a hydraulic fracturing petition.

But Biden did not call for a broad “fracking ban” and has instead said he would end permitting and leasing for oil and gas development on federal public lands.

That would also affect offshore drilling, which over time could make a dent in the country’s oil supply. An industry group says a leasing ban would cause production to start declining in 2027 and cut Gulf of Mexico output in half by 2040 (Energywire, Sept. 24).

Crooks of Wood Mackenzie said the effect onshore would be “minimal,” and offshore impacts would take time to become apparent.

“A ban on new leasing, if permanent, would mean that by 2035, U.S. offshore oil and gas production would be about 30% lower than if lease sales had continued,” he estimated.

Most shale drilling, or fracking, occurs on private property. But not in New Mexico, where banning new oil and gas drilling on public lands could severely pinch tax revenues. That would be a blow to first-term Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (Energywire, Sept. 15).

And though most direct regulations of drilling are handled at the state level, there are many ways a hostile presidential administration can make life tougher for oil and gas companies, such as accounting for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts during federal permitting for infrastructure projects.

Amy Andryszak, the president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the industry expects to work with the incoming administration, noting it believes “any serious plan” to address climate includes natural gas as a source.

“Natural gas and related infrastructure has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, and it is our goal at INGAA to keep it that way,” she said.

Many of the big national projects driven by the country’s shale boom have been completed. But Biden has publicly said he will seek to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline despite labor agreements signed by four unions and the company developing it (Energywire, Aug. 6).

The Dakota Access pipeline could also run into trouble. The 1,200-mile line is moving crude oil, but it is still being challenged in court by several tribes, including the Standing Rock Sioux, whose members fear water contamination.

Because of rulings in the case this summer, the pipeline could be closed by a president who is willing to stop the flow of oil (Energywire, Aug. 28).

Environmentalists, who have pressed Biden to more quickly move away from fossil fuels, have a broader wish list for a Biden administration. That includes efforts to make it more difficult for Wall Street to bankroll risky climate investments. Groups such as Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of organizations working to pressure banks to stop financing new oil and gas projects, are hopeful Biden will nominate a Treasury secretary who prioritizes climate change.

But lacking a robust Senate majority, Biden may not have the flexibility to name progressive Cabinet secretaries such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran for president on a sweeping climate platform that included directing a federal oversight board to evaluate the climate-related liabilities of U.S. financial institutions.

Environmentalists signaled they’d keep up the pressure.

“After a round of well-deserved celebrations, we’ll get back to work pushing with the urgency our climate crisis requires,” said Rebecca Concepcion Apostol, national program director for Oil Change International, which is asking Biden to appoint “true climate champions” to key positions and ban anyone with ties to the fossil fuel industry from working in his administration.

FERC buy-in

Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035 also could hinge on an independent agency outside the presidential Cabinet: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Without Democratic control of the Senate, however, FERC efforts would likely be incremental, analysts say.

“Any major changes will require legislation,” said Chip Cannon, head of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP’s energy regulation practice. “There’s not a lot it can go off and do on its own.”

FERC’s regulatory authority over the interstate transmission of electricity, as well as its ability to approve projects such as gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas export terminals, makes it a key player in an energy transition.

The five-member panel, for example, has the authority to change power market rules to accommodate renewable electricity growth. It also sets incentives for developing high-voltage transmission systems, which many see as essential for bringing large amounts of clean energy resources online.

Jeff Dennis, general counsel and managing director at Advanced Energy Economy, said while the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate likely precludes major changes to FERC’s authority under the Federal Power Act, there are certain proposals that could garner bipartisan support.

“Like transmission,” he said. “You could potentially see bipartisan legislation move that may give FERC some responsibility to do another transmission planning rule.”

FERC issued its landmark policy on transmission development, Order 1000, in 2011. But some analysts say the rule failed to remove hurdles to building new high-voltage transmission lines and may require an update (Energywire, Aug. 13).

Dennis also noted that a Democratic-led FERC could find ways to rescind a controversial market rule, called the minimum offer price rule, or MOPR, that renewable energy and nuclear developers say hampers their ability to compete in wholesale markets.

One complication for Biden could be FERC’s composition. The five-member panel currently lacks two commissioners. Trump’s nominees, Democrat Allison Clements and Republican Mark Christie, are waiting on Senate confirmation (Energywire, Oct. 5).

But it’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will move to confirm the duo before Biden’s inauguration, at which point Biden could choose to nominate new commissioners. However, any new Biden nominees could face delays in a Republican-controlled Senate.

FERC’s future makeup was further tossed into a state of uncertainty late last week when Trump demoted Republican Chairman Neil Chatterjee and replaced him with conservative Commissioner James Danly (Energywire, Nov. 5).

Chatterjee has said he will finish out his term, which expires next June, allowing the commission to retain the necessary quorum to conduct business until then. Even without a Democratic majority, lone Democrat Richard Glick, if he’s appointed chairman by Biden, will set the agenda and determine what items are voted on.

For example, Glick could prioritize a more comprehensive calculation of greenhouse gas emissions when reviewing permits for natural gas infrastructure projects.

Former FERC Chairman Tony Clark, a Republican, said while Glick could mandate the commission weigh more upstream and downstream emissions impacts, it’s unclear whether the agency could act on that information.

“That doesn’t seem to be a showstopper for projects,” he said.

The environmental left is likely to put enormous pressure on Biden to block certain pipeline projects, Clark said. He said certain federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, could “throw a lot of monkey wrenches in the process” and obstruct project permits.

“Basically, any pipeline project that still has any federal agency permits hanging over its head faces increased risk in a Biden administration,” he said. “Courts might eventually curb this sort of politicization of projects, but it all adds regulatory and litigation risk.”

Reporters Arianna Skibell, David Iaconangelo, Heather Richards, Mike Soraghan, Mike Lee, Miranda Willson and Carlos Anchondo contributed.