Will a Biden Administration Actually Wean America Off Big Oil?

This week U.S. President Joe Biden announced a pause on new oil and gas leases on federal land, the latest in a flurry of climate-related executive orders, policy announcements and new hires in the seven days since his inauguration.

Immediately after his swearing in last Wednesday, Jan. 20, the president signed executive orders recommitting the United States to the Paris Climate Accord, rescinding federal permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, and ordering federal agencies to review more than 100 of the previous administration’s environmental rollbacks.

On Monday, he announced a plan to replace the federal government’s fleet of 645,000 cars and trucks with electric vehicles. And today he announced the drilling moratorium and other bold policies, including a pledge to set aside 30 percent of public lands by 2030 and stand up a new Civilian Climate Corps.

Even to a jaded old cynic like me, there’s a sense that the incoming administration is seizing the moment, perhaps the last possible moment, to wean the American economy from its dependence on fossil fuels and perhaps even evade the worst of the climate and extinction crises it has brought.

The effect is a bit dizzying, coming as it does after four years of federal policies aimed at propping up the fossil fuel industry, and an administration that culminated, on the very same day, in a last-minute bid to sell off drilling rights in the Arctic Refuge, and another to subvert democracy itself.

A week after the inaugural I’m still caught up in the moment, my mind full of Garth Brooks’ “Amazing Grace” and J-Lo’s “This Land is My Land,” and most of all the indelible image of Amanda Gorman standing before the capitol, proclaiming “The new dawn blooms as we free it.”

Now, with those stirring words still echoing in my head, President Biden has dropped a raft of new policies and executive orders designed to usher America and the world along the path to a vaguely defined “clean energy future.” These policies aren’t all rhetoric and rosy-eyed optimism. They stem from a realization that the fossil era is coming to an end, and that America needs to transition to cleaner, lower-cost alternatives just to keep up economically.

A hill worth climbing. Deborah Lee Soltesz, Creative Commons.

Of course the inauguration, not to mention the campaign that preceded it, was a show designed to reset the narrative, to bind up old and new wounds, and to give us all permission to hope. That’s okay. Today, hope, for those of us who love the outdoors, or simply, the planet, is just what we need.

Both parties have signaled a commitment to massive stimulus spending to trigger a post-Covid economic recovery. Why not use it to jump-start a new energy future at the same time? Replacing the federal fleet with electric vehicles will help American automakers weather a trillion-dollar transition they (and their international competitors) have already committed to making, and filling the horizon with windmills will generate jobs as well as power.

In the golden glow of this new dawn, with these initiatives still in the embryonic stage, we can fill them up with our hopes and ignore, at least for a little while, the hard realities of actually making them happen.

Just take a moment to savor that feeling.

Okay, now let’s talk about what comes next.

The White House has reportedly prepared documents that would pause new oil and gas auctions offshore and on federal land while the new administration reviews the programs. The moratorium will have no effect on existing leases, meaning drilling will continue on public lands and offshore.

So the kerfuffle over oil and gas leasing on public lands is about the future. Only half of current leases are currently in production, and the hold on new leases—even if were made permanent—won’t affect those operations, or protect any of the untouched lands the oil companies already have rights to.

The executive orders last week and today are the easy part. Actually breaking the deep symbiotic bond between government and big (fossil fuel) energy, or even loosening it, is a massive undertaking. Energy, grazing, and mining interests are joined at the hip with the agencies that oversee their use of federal land.

Former Bureau of Land Management insider Richard Spotts wrote in an Adventure Journal editorial earlier this week that the agency’s current leadership culture is regressive, biased, secretive, and “fundamentally incapable of doing what’s necessary.”

“BLM is often said to stand for ‘Bureau of Livestock and Mining’ because those are the activities it tends to favor over the health of the land,” wrote Richard Spotts, a 15-year veteran of the agency in the Bush and Obama years. In other words, that was the culture at BLM before Trump installed as chief of the agency an anti-public lands activist so radical that even Mitch McConnell’s Senate wouldn’t confirm him.

In the long term, market forces favor wind over fossil. Photo: Creative Commons

Biden is reportedly making his White House into a nerve center for climate, bringing in a team of climate-aware leaders hailed for their pragmatism and clear-eyed assessment of the challenge ahead. Whether they can change the ingrained culture in federal land-management bureaucracies remains to be seen. Biden’s order this week requires agencies to study how much federal land should be preserved from mining and drilling or set aside for renewable energy production. That process is sure to involve well-moneyed lobbyists and arguments around jobs and revenue that will resonate with the public and policymakers alike.

Fossil fuels extracted from federal and tribal land account for nearly a quarter of U.S. carbon output, and there’s money under all that smoke: oil and gas leasing generated $11.7 billion in federal, state, local and tribal taxes last year, according to the Interior Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue. (Biden’s leasing moratorium does not affect tribal lands.)

Hours after Biden announced his plan to electrify the U.S. government vehicle fleet, NBC News dropped a story arguing the policy could cripple infrastructure programs.

Biden’s incoming transportation secretary admitted as much in his Senate confirmation hearing. “As vehicles become more efficient and we pursue electrification, sooner or later there will be questions about whether the gas tax can be effective at all,” Pete Buttigieg told senators last week. The gas tax is the number-one sugar daddy for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is the nation’s top source of coveted infrastructure jobs. The less fuel we burn, the less money there is to go around.

This is what we’ve come to. In order to execute good policy, we need money generated by bad policy.

Fortunately, market forces also work the other way. The United States has continued to move steadily away from coal and natural gas, simply because wind and solar power have become more efficient. That held true even as Trump quit the Paris Climate Accord four years ago and worked aggressively to prop up faltering fossil fuel industries.

Renewable sources will account for 70 percent of new generation capacity built this year. That growth is driven by market forces, helped along by state and local mandates and major U.S. utilities working toward net-zero or zero-carbon emissions goals, according to GreenTech Media.

With the federal government now onboard, market forces at work and a renewed sense of urgency, it feels as if this time we’ve reached a turning point. Like the sun finally breaking over a canyon wall, it’s been a long time coming. I’m going to savor that feeling a minute more, thinking about the possibilities and playing back that poem in my head, the one that reminds us our business is unfinished, and history has its eyes on us. The one telling us it’s okay to hope, but not to sit out the fight. “The new dawn blooms as we free it,” she said. “For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.”

Top photo: Creative Commons



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