Paris climate accord, electric vehicles, fracking: What to expect from a Biden administration

President-elect Joe Biden is laying out plans for his first few days in the White House. He says rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change would be among his first actions after he’s sworn in. During the campaign, Biden also said he has the most “ambitious environmental justice agenda ever.” He wants to restrict oil and gas drilling, expand mileage standards for SUVs, and make the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050.

This comes after four years of Donald Trump’s executive orders unfurling more than 120 Obama-era environmental policies.

“We will see some of the unraveling of the unraveling,” says Juliet Eilperin, national affairs correspondent for the Washington Post who covers the environment.

Some changes can happen right away, such as rejoining the global climate agreement that was forged in Paris in 2015, but other rules will take a long time to reverse, according to Eilperin.

She notes that when Donald Trump first became president, there was unified GOP control of Congress, and they used the Congressional Review Act to abolish a few key Obama-era rules, and those cannot come back.

“They're things like a stream buffer protection rule that would have made it more difficult for mining companies to dump waste into waterways; an effort to basically take a more balanced approach to planning across the federal landscape at the Bureau of Land Management. So there are a few of those rules that have been wiped out and are much more difficult to replace.”

She continues, “But with many of them … there's a way that you can kind of rebuild them, or the incoming administration could try to reach an agreement with, say, automakers and the state of California to have stricter tailpipe emissions without necessarily going through as lengthy processes as we've seen in recent years.”

Stricter automobile tailpipe emissions have been litigated in California, and Eilperin predicts that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation will craft new standards. In the meantime, she expects negotiations between auto companies, environmental groups, and the new administration to see if they can agree on targets.

Biden wants to put in a whole fleet of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the country. Eilperin notes that EVs currently comprise less than 2% of the U.S. auto market.

“You might see more carrots than sticks kind of support from the federal government to ensure that it's easier to deploy electric vehicles. … And one of the interesting questions is how much can a new administration do on its own? And how much might Congress be able to reach some sort of bipartisan agreement on some of this federal support?”

Fracking will be a flashpoint in the coming years, says Eilperin. “You're going to have, for example, many of the climate activists — who really came out and supported Joe Biden — demand stricter rules when it comes to extracting oil and gas. On the other hand, you absolutely have a pretty significant constituency for expanded oil and gas development, including in many swing states.”

She continues, “The president-elect repeatedly said towards the end of the campaign he was not going to ban fracking. And of course, no president can ban fracking, in part because there's so much activity on private land. Joe Biden did commit to banning all new leasing and permitting on federal lands and waters. That's going to be one of the most difficult pledges for any new president to follow through on. And I think what you're going to see is a real push to impose stricter environmental standards on oil and gas drilling in the United States, but not a complete halt to this kind of activity.”

If Congress or the Senate remain in Republican hands, says Eilperin, it’ll be extremely difficult for Biden to undertake some of his most ambitious climate promises, including a $2 trillion investment package in renewable energy, and other priorities such as energy efficiency and weatherization.

“He certainly is likely to get additional dollars out of any Congress, especially as lawmakers try to jumpstart the economy, given the pandemic. But it will be much more difficult for him to do things just with executive action,” she says.

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson