What Joe Biden’s election means for environmental policy

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Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. While climate change was not the top election issue, it did receive more attention than in recent elections, likely due in part to the now-routine megafires that ripped through much of the Western United states in the last few months. Will the change in leadership result in any notable changes in environmental policy? Below I briefly summarize Biden’s stated environmental plans, and the prospects for actually enacting them.

Climate

One thing we can be sure of is that Biden will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, which the US only just officially exited, becoming the only country in the world that is not an official signatory. However, merely signing on to the accord does not amount to much in terms of actual policy as the emissions targets are non-binding (i.e. the accord is not a treaty, which would require setting the terms of the deal into law), and the vast majority of countries are not on track to hit even the modest targets set by the deal.

Rejoining Paris will be merely symbolic unless it is backed by strong policy. While Biden has avoided the “Green New Deal” framing favored by the progressive wing of the Democratic party, his official climate plan is quite ambitious, calling for $2 trillion in new spending on green infrastructure projects like wind and solar installations, widespread electric car charging stations, and energy-efficient homes. But the prospects for these plans are slim given that Republicans are likely to retain control of the Senate (pending two runoff elections in Georgia) and are certain to block any meaningful climate legislation.

That leaves executive actions, which cannot create new spending but can impact the activity of federal agencies and how polluting companies are regulated. President Trump made extensive use of executive actions to slash environmental regulations across the board. The safest bet for Biden is to reverse most or all of those actions –most importantly bringing back some version of Barack Obama’s “clean power plan”, which was a series of regulations that sought to cut carbon emissions from power plants by a third by 2030. Another likely move, particularly important for Montana, is bringing back drilling protections on public land that were scrapped by Trump. While these actions would be significant, they do not amount to nearly the emissions impact as what might have been achieved through legislation. Further, the conservative supreme court majority could rule that such executive actions are unconstitutional.

A note on fracking

Also important for Northeastern Montana is the future of fracking. While some elements of the Democratic party call for the banning of fracking, Joe Biden pledged repeatedly that he did not support an outright ban. His comments seem to indicate that he is a proponent of the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” – a cheap electricity source that is cleaner than coal (though still a significant carbon emitter), to be used until the technological challenges associated with renewable energy are solved (perhaps the topic of a future post!). While Biden is almost certain to leave fracking more or less alone, the industry is in rough shape financially, as I wrote about earlier this year. The costs of renewables continue to plunge, and plain old market forces may spell the end of fracking before any president gets around to it.

 

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About Author

Brock Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. He received a PhD from UC-Davis in 2013 and spent three years as a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Analysis of Resource Rich Economies. He mainly studies effects of oil and natural gas shocks in both an international and domestic US setting.

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