Which Biden agencies will prioritize climate? Here’s a hint

Source: By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 25, 2021

President Biden has promised to fight climate change with the full force of the federal government, but a series of confirmation hearings last week suggest the issue would be less of a priority for some agencies — particularly in the national security realm.

Nominees to lead the Treasury, State and Transportation departments used their hearings to preview the administration’s clean energy agenda. The nominees said an infrastructure blitz would be the major avenue for climate policy, though many details — including how to fund it — remain unresolved. Electric vehicles would be top priority, even beyond the Transportation Department. And the world of energy financing can expect major changes.

That said, Biden’s national security nominees had little to say about climate. Homeland Security secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, who would oversee the Federal Emergency Management Agency along with immigration agencies, didn’t mention it at all during his hearing. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines gave it only a glancing reference, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seemed to suggest the issue would be driven by his staff.

Overall, though, the repeated discussion of climate policy — even before Biden’s core energy and environment team start their Hill appearances — points to the centrality of clean energy to Biden’s domestic and international agendas. Resilience issues have gotten less attention so far, despite Biden’s emphasis on infrastructure.

And while climate does have major national security implications — from refugees to resources — it’s less central to the day-to-day duties of top military and spy officials. They will also be supported by a new roster of White House climate officials, including Melanie Nakagawa, the National Security Council’s senior director of climate change and energy.

This week could see more of Biden’s climate agenda come into focus. Hearings are scheduled for his picks to lead the Energy and Commerce departments, as well as the nominee for United Nations ambassador.

The hearings have hinted at how senators of both parties are adjusting their posture for an era of potential climate action. Democrats urged immediate across-the-board mobilization, while some Republicans signaled openness to restricting fossil fuels abroad even as they defended domestic industry.

The hearings also showcased who is most likely to oppose Biden’s climate agenda. The harshest questioning came from fossil fuel state lawmakers and potential 2024 presidential contenders.

Pipelines

Grilled over Biden’s decision to block permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, Transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg said the administration’s goal is to create more jobs “on net” than it ends in the fossil fuel industry.

“We are very eager to see those [pipeline] workers continue to be employed in good-paying union jobs, even if they might be different ones,” said Buttigieg.

“And we can do that while recognizing the fact that, when the books are written about our careers, one of the main things we’ll be judged on is whether we did enough to stop the destruction of life and property due to climate change,” he said. “I’ve got to believe we can do both of those things.”

Buttigieg was less assertive about the role of fossil gas under Biden.

“I do recognize that natural gas, certainly for climate purposes, is not the same thing as coal,” he said, adding that he would review regulations about transporting gas by rail.

“In our own city, in our municipal fleet, we did a lot of work on things from garbage trucks to … light-duty vehicles to have some of them run on gas. And I think there was federal support to do that on our bus system as well,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not the same as coal, but of course it’s also not the same as hydroelectric power. And we need to be balancing all of these considerations as we go forward.”

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken was more circumspect about Biden’s Keystone XL move and its broader implications.

“This would be a decision for the president to make,” he said.

“What I can say with regard to the State Department and its role, and my potential role if I am at the State Department, is anything going forward we would address with absolute objectivity and professionalism to make sure that any proposed permit or agreement that comes before us advances the national interests, the national security,” Blinken said.

Energy financing

Financing fossil fuels abroad — including pipelines — emerged as a more bipartisan target.

Blinken signaled determination to stop Russian and Chinese fossil fuel projects. He assured Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that the Biden administration would use every tool possible to stymie Nord Stream 2, a Russian pipeline to export gas to Europe.

“The president-elect strongly agrees with you that Nord Stream 2 is a bad idea,” Blinken said. “I’m determined to do whatever we can to prevent the completion, the last 100 yards — very much agree.”

Blinken also singled out China’s Belt and Road Initiative for financing dirty power.

“We want to make sure that we are not doing anything to facilitate countries exporting dirty technology around the world,” he said.

Instead, the Biden administration would focus on supporting domestic technology to catch up with China’s head start, said Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen.

“Treasury will cooperate by looking at ways that we can direct investment [and] enable private firms to have the information they need to support sustainable investing,” she said.

Yellen repeatedly mentioned electric vehicles as a sector the U.S. should support, including domestic supply chains for manufacturing EV components.

Biden hasn’t yet decided how to finance his infrastructure plan, Yellen said, but the investments he’s seeking would be worth deficit spending.

Buttigieg signaled an openness to raising the gas tax to help pay for road spending, but an aide later walked that back.

National security

Biden’s national security picks barely incorporated climate into their hearings. They mostly treated it as a separate, stand-alone issue rather than something woven into their portfolios.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Austin, who was confirmed Friday as Defense secretary, what he would do if Biden proposed easing up on China’s military in exchange for climate promises or if he cut military spending to fund clean energy programs.

Austin said he would safeguard military spending while hiring staffers capable of integrating the department into the administration’s climate agenda.

“I will appoint a specific person on my staff to help me focus on this issue and to coordinate issues within the department and within the services as well,” he said.

He later repeated that promise to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and said he’d continue energy efficiency programs.

“We are no doubt doing some things on all of our installations now,” he said. “I think there’s more that we can do. You know, we consume a lot of energy, and so I think that we could have a substantial impact if we’re focused on the right things.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he’d spoken privately with Austin about military bases’ climate resilience.

Haines, confirmed last week as director of national intelligence, said during the public portion of her hearing that climate was one of several “evolving” threats, along with organized crime, corruption and disinformation.

She also said climate would color Biden’s strategy toward China.

“I think in the context of China, China is adversarial and an adversary on some issues. And in other issues, we try to cooperate with them whether in the context of climate change or other things,” she said.

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