Biden’s climate plan would hinge on Senate outcome

Source: By James Osborne, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, speaks to people on Election Day in the West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. If Biden wins the presidential election and rejoins the Paris Agreement, as he has promised, the United States would find that it has some catching up to do. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Even with his victory over President Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s hopes for enacting the ambitious climate change policy on which he campaigned remain unclear with control of the Senate in limbo.

Biden, who exceeded the necessary 270 Electoral College votes when he was projected to win Pennsylvania on Saturday, still faces the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate that has roundly criticized his plan to move the country to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury as too costly and disruptive to the economy.

Any progress on the issue would likely be focused on narrower measures, such as the development of carbon capture and other clean energy technologies, on which there is bipartisan agreement, said Scott Segal, a Washington energy attorney.

“On tax packages, energy, climate change we (would) see more modest attempts at negotiated compromise,” he said.

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For those in the oil and gas sector, as well as oil-rich states like Texas, the prospect of divided government would represent some protection from a Biden administration that appears committed to solving the climate crisis. Biden’s climate plan aims to accelerate the movement away from fossil fuels, a trend that is already underway around the world, with oil demand expected to peak within the next decade.

“The shift to lower-carbon energy isn’t over, but it’s going to be a more realistic timeline,” Dan Eberhart, the owner of a Denver-based drilling firm and regular on CNN and Fox News, tweeted Thursday morning. “Biden won’t be able to pass a costly, zero-carbon mandate thru a GOP Senate.”

The final results of the Senate election are not expected for weeks, with two runoff elections in Georgia scheduled for Jan. 5. Republicans and Democrats each claimed 48 seats Saturday, with Republicans all but assured victory in two of the four seats still up for grabs. In the event they split the Senate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would provide the deciding vote.

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If Republicans hold on to their Senate majority, Biden would likely rely on executive orders and the federal agencies to reduce emissions and shift the nation away from oil and other fossil fuels.

For instance, he could move ahead on his pledge to stop leasing federal lands for oil and gas drilling. He also could order the EPA to limit carbon emissions from vehicles, accelerating car manufacturers’ shift toward electric vehicles, said Bob Perciasepe, president of the think tank Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

“And there’s things (the federal government) can do, like purchasing cement with lower carbon, which over time would bring down the cost. That kind of stuff could happen,” he said. “Most people were expecting Biden to win, and the Senate was the wild card. This isn’t a scenario that was unexpected.”

In addition, Biden is expected to rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change, which the United States officially pulled out of last week at Trump’s direction.

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While Biden’s plan to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be off the table, federal spending on climate change is still expected to increase.

In recent years, Democrats and Republicans have found areas of agreement on climate initiatives such as tax credits for carbon capture projects and research funding for clean energy technologies such as batteries, which are likely to become a big business as nations seek to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Biden, who spent more than three decades in the Senate, might be able to find common ground with Republicans to forge bipartisan climate polices, said Ron Minsk, who served as special assistant to President Barack Obama on the National Economic Council.

“There might be some parts of the Democratic Party that would like to see something more precipitous, but I think (Biden) wants to do this in a way that helps preserve American jobs and doesn’t create too much disruption,” he said. “The question is how combative an approach are Republicans going to take.”

That would likely depend on the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, who represents the coal-producing state of Kentucky and helped block climate legislation during the Obama administration.

The oil industry spent heavily to protect the Republican majority in the Senate, giving Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, more than $900,000 and McConnell almost $500,000.

Congress, however, is coming under pressure not only from environmentalists, but also corporations that want Republicans and Democrats to figure out a long-term climate policy that would allow them to plan for the future and adjust business operations accordingly. Congress last considered major climate policy more than decade ago.

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Earlier this year, some of the nation’s largest companies, including the oil major Exxon Mobil, New York bank JPMorgan Chase and the telecommunications company AT&T, proposed legislation that would create a $40 per ton tax on all carbon emissions. The tax would increase 5 percent per year above inflation, with the revenues returned to taxpayers through a dividend.

So far, the proposal has generated little momentum in the House or Senate, at least publicly, but behind the scenes the idea is getting interest from Democrats and Republicans alike, Perciasepe said.

“It’s possible there could be enough alignment between some Republicans and the business community, bringing along some Democrats, and the president cajoling some others,” he said. “You could get a critical mass.”