Biden calls climate change an ’emergency.’ Now he’s under pressure to officially declare it one.

By Dino Grandon, Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2020 with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Joe Biden often calls climate change an “emergency.” Soon he will have to decide whether to officially declare it one when he takes office.

Some environmentalists are pushing the president-elect to proclaim global warming a national emergency, giving him more power to take executive actions to tackle it. 

“The reason to do it is not symbolic,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the green groups making the push. “It actually gives the president more power.”

But such a unilateral move may cut too much against Biden’s inclinations to try to strike deals across the aisle. 

An emergency declaration could give Biden more tools, especially if Republicans keep Senate control. 

Using emergency authority, Biden may be able to funnel military money to the construction of renewable energy projects, reinstate a ban on exporting oil and lob trade penalties on countries such as Brazil for permitting the destruction of the Amazon. 

A narrowly divided Congress could become an obstacle to broad action on climate change. Republicans retain control of the Senate if they win either one of the two runoff elections in Georgia next month. Even if Democrats win both, Vice President Kamala D. Harris would be the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 chamber. 

Proponents of an emergency declaration note that climate scientists warn the world has just a decade to sharply curb carbon emissions and forestall dangerous levels of warming. 

“Let’s call this emergency what it is,” said Kassie Siegel, a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s so much [Biden] can do without Congress.” 

So far, the Biden transition team isn’t promising anything. 

This week, the Center for Biological Diversity sent the Biden transition team a report urging the president-elect to invoke the National Emergencies Act to address both the rise of global temperatures and the loss of species to extinction. Greenpeace, and Oil Change U.S. are among other left-leaning environmental groups that have endorsed the idea.

During the campaign, Biden pointed to climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing the nation, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, economic recession and a reckoning over race.

Jamal Brown, a Biden transition spokesman, emphasized Biden’s commitment to rejoining the Paris climate accord, but stopped short of endorsing a climate emergency declaration.

“President-elect Biden has called the existential threat of climate change one of the four crises facing our nation, and is taking action now to implement his bold agenda beginning on day one,” he said. 

Unlike Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Biden never vowed to invoke emergency powers to address climate change during the Democratic primary.

A national climate emergency may be another flashpoint between the Democratic Party’s left and moderate wings. 

Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said there is plenty the incoming Biden administration can get done issuing regulations and investing in clean energy infrastructure without an emergency declaration. “The actions that need to be done on climate change can be done without declaring a national emergency,” he said. “Declaring a national emergency needs to be take very seriously.” 

But the bar may have been lowered when President Trump used emergency powers to tap the military budget to fund a wall along the southern border. Last year, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to proceed with that plan

A climate emergency declaration would almost certainly be challenged in court as well. But federal judges are “extraordinarily deferential” to presidents invoking emergency powers, Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity argued. 

It could come at a political cost for Biden.

A big piece of the former vice president’s agenda is passing a major infrastructure bill in Congress that will help build out solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and high-speed rail.

“Biden’s goal is to bring moderates on board with the clean energy transition,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute who once worked for Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee. “Declaring a national emergency will only alienate the moderate senators he needs.” 

He added: “There is a climate emergency. But that doesn’t mean you take that measure when you are trying to unite the country.”

Still, such a move has precedent abroad. More than 30 countries recognize climate change as an official emergency, with New Zealand becoming the latest to issue a declaration earlier this week

Adrien Salazar, senior campaign strategist at liberal New York-based think tank Demos, noted that U.S. presidents have declared over 60 national emergencies since the National Emergencies Act passed in 1976. He doubts another emergency declaration will alienate most Americans. 

“The Biden administration has to act immediately on climate,” Salazar said, “and this is one of the first and simplest things he can do.”


Yale360, How Biden Can Put the U.S. on a Path to Carbon-Free Electricity, BY MICHAEL GERRARD • DECEMBER 3, 2020

Even without strong action by Congress, President-elect Joe Biden will have a wide array of tools — from expanding renewables on federal lands to pushing the financial industry on climate change — that could put the U.S. on a trajectory to decarbonizing its electricity sector by 2035.

President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on a goal of “a carbon pollution-free power sector” by 2035. The United States is now at 38 percent — 19 percent from nuclear, 18 percent from renewables — and the challenge of moving from 38 percent to 100 percent in 15 years is even more daunting than it looks, given the upcoming retirement of nuclear power plants and the prospect that Biden may not get much help from Congress.

A deeper look, however, shows that the Biden administration — with its commitment to make fighting climate change a core goal across the federal government — has a wide array of actions it can take to move the U.S. far closer to decarbonizing its electricity sector. These steps include everything from significantly expanding solar and wind power installations on federal lands, to reforming the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Department of Energy to favor renewable energy development over fossil fuels, to using the levers of government to ensure that dealing with climate change becomes an important priority for the country’s financial industry.

All these tools and more will be needed given the Biden administration’s ambitious decarbonization goals and the scale of the challenges it faces.

Among those challenges is that the U.S fleet of nuclear power plants is aging and many will be retiring in the next decade or two. And until cheaper and safer technologies emerge, no new nuclear plants will be built, except for two units now going up in Georgia, both late and grossly over budget.

To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 the U.S. will need to triple renewable generation capacity.

In addition, Biden has set the goal of “net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.” That’s what scientists tell us is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But getting there will eventually require all new passenger cars to be electric, all new buildings to have electric heat and hot water, and many other economic activities to switch from oil, natural gas, or coal to electricity. This will swell the demand for green power. A study released in October, the Zero Carbon Action Plan, found that to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 the U.S. will need to increase renewable generation capacity from the current 1,100 gigawatts to 3,000 gigawatts. That means adding an average of 100 gigawatts every year between now and 2050, mostly from wind and solar. (A good-sized nuclear power plant has a capacity of about 1 gigawatt; most big wind and solar farms are less than half that size.)

Biden also is unlikely to get much help from Congress. Even if Democrats win both seats in the January 5 runoff election in Georgia, the resulting Democratic majority — a 50-50 split with tie-breaking votes cast by Vice President Kamala Harris — will likely be too fragile to achieve the strong actions sought by climate advocates, such as a nationwide clean electricity standard, an economy-wide price on carbon, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, and a massive infusion of federal dollars into the clean-energy sector.

Notwithstanding all of this, there is a great deal the Biden administration will be able to do to advance clean electricity. And fortunately, the federal government will not have to do all the work. A total of 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have “renewable portfolio standards” — requirements that electric utilities obtain a certain amount of their power from renewable sources — and nine of these require 100 percent clean electricity, mostly by 2050. These standards will even drive up renewable power generation in states that do not have such standards but want to sell power to states that do. Many cities have adopted similar goals. At least 260 major corporations have pledged to buy 100 percent renewable electricity. And the economics and popularity of renewables are improving so rapidly that entrepreneurs and investors are crowding the field, with record levels of private sector investment in U.S. renewable energy and grid technologies in 2019.

The Block Island Wind Farm, the first and only offshore wind facility in the U.S., located off the coast of Rhode Island.
The Block Island Wind Farm, the first and only offshore wind facility in the U.S., located off the coast of Rhode Island. USDOE

Here are some of the key steps the Biden administration can take to bring the country closer to the goal of greening the electricity supply.

Federal lands and waters

The federal government owns vast swaths of land in the western states, including plenty that is suitable for the large number of wind and solar facilities we’ll need. Most of this is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM can speed up the leasing of this land for renewables and charge lower rents, while also slowing down leasing for coal, oil, and natural gas extraction. Renewables development on federal lands is often delayed by the worthwhile but often protracted processes under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Rather than conducting separate reviews for each project, this process can be sped up by undertaking regional environmental and species studies, which allows individual projects in the covered region to be approved much more quickly. The Obama administration did this successfully with the Western Solar Plan, an initiative that identified 19 zones suitable for solar farms across 285,000 acres in six states.

Offshore areas are controlled by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Under President Trump, who has been hostile to wind energy, BOEM has moved very slowly to approve some offshore wind projects. This can be accelerated, and BOEM should also open up more offshore areas for renewables leasing. The recent auctions of such leases off the coasts of Massachusetts and Long Island have been met with enthusiastic responses from the wind industry, with numerous bidders and record-setting bids.

The Biden administration can also make more effective use of a 2015 statute called the FAST Act, which provides for better coordination among federal agencies reviewing infrastructure projects, including renewable energy installations, and can hold agencies accountable if they do not meet review deadlines.

The Biden administration could mandate that the government shift its sources of electricity to renewables wherever possible.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

During the Trump administration, FERC has taken several actions that favor fossil fuel generation over renewables. Among them are orders requiring certain wholesale electricity market operators to, in effect, require renewable energy companies to bid at auctions at artificially high prices, allowing fossil fuel generators to outbid them. FERC has also changed the rules under the Public Utility Regulatory Practices Act in a way that harms distributed renewable energy resources, and the commission has approved natural gas infrastructure without considering its climate impacts.

To cut carbon emissions, a movement grows to “electrify everything.” Read more.

Depending on the timing of Senate confirmations and the possibility of early retirements, President Biden should be able to secure a Democratic majority on FERC by mid-2021. FERC could then reverse these actions and also reiterate that it will approve carbon pricing in the wholesale electricity markets if proposed by regional market operators. FERC could also give clearer guidance to these operators to encourage distributed energy resources, energy storage, and what is known as demand response, which for example allows utilities to change the settings on air conditioners and reduce power to certain appliances in participating households during peak demand.

Transmission lines

Large wind and solar farms are likely to be in remote areas where there is ample land and little local opposition. Bringing the power to the places where it is needed requires transmission lines. States control the siting of these lines, and often resist new lines that they feel do not sufficiently benefit them. To address this problem, Congress enacted a law in 2005 that granted the Department of Energy the authority to designate “national interest electric transmission corridors” where new lines are needed, and it gave FERC authority to override state inaction on lines in these corridors. Court decisions found that the Department of Energy had followed the wrong procedures in designating these corridors, and the courts also narrowly interpreted FERC’s authority. So this law has been ineffective, largely failing to speed up expansion of transmission lines.

Transmission lines at the 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Project, located on public lands in the Mojave Desert in California.
Transmission lines at the 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Project, located on public lands in the Mojave Desert in California. DENNIS SCHROEDER/NREL

As shown in a report about to be issued by Columbia’s Center for Global Energy Policy and New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, the law can and should be revived. By following the correct procedures, the Department of Energy can make new corridor designations, and FERC can issue a broader interpretation of the statute in most states, paving the way for the construction of additional transmission lines.

In 2010, FERC issued a directive, known as Order No. 1000, designed to encourage regional planning of transmission lines in a way that advances public policy goals, such as fighting climate change. Implementation of this order has gone poorly, but can be improved without Congressional action.


The federal government annually purchases 54 terawatt hours of electricity, about the same as used by Greece. Only 10 percent of this is from renewables. The Biden administration could mandate that the government shift its sources of supply to renewables wherever possible. Federal agreements to purchase power could help new renewable facilities obtain financing.

By using financial levers, the Biden administration could hasten the transition to a decarbonized electricity sector.

The federal government also buys vast numbers of vehicles, computers, and appliances, and occupies 2.8 billion square feet of space. If the government insisted on procuring only the most energy-efficient equipment and on maximizing the energy efficiency of its space (and put solar panels on as many of its rooftops as possible), that would create markets for energy-efficient items and narrow the gap between supply and demand for renewables.


The Trump administration imposed tariffs on the importation of several types of equipment that are important for renewables. While the tariffs on solar panels benefited a few U.S. manufacturers, the Solar Energy Industries Association says by increasing prices on solar arrays, the tariffs cost more than 62,000 U.S. jobs and $19 billion in private sector investment. Tariffs imposed on wind towers in 2020 are likewise expected to harm the wind industry. A Trump order restricting the importation of “bulk-power system electric equipment” — such as control systems, large generators, capacitors, and transformers — on cybersecurity grounds is also causing concern in the energy storage industry, among others.

The Biden administration can revisit or rescind these orders that may inhibit renewables growth.


Biden has vowed to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-C) to develop technologies for clean energy such as grid-scale electricity storage, small modular nuclear reactors, zero net-energy buildings, use of renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage or reuse. The benefits of federal investments in these technologies won’t be immediate, but they could be massive.

A Tesla Model 3 electric car being built in Fremont, California in 2018.
A Tesla Model 3 electric car being built in Fremont, California in 2018. MASON TRINCA/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES

Financial regulation

Happy talk vs hard truth — why fossil fuel production cuts are so not happening (Clean Technica, Steve Hanley column)

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 empowers the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and the Securities and Exchange Commission to limit systemic risks to financial stability. Today, of course, the impacts of climate change represent a growing threat to the economy. In September, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a report stating that “climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy.” Last month, the Federal Reserve formally highlighted the risks that climate change poses to financial stability. Janet Yellin, who has been warning about the risks of climate change since at least 1997, has been nominated for Secretary of the Treasury.

These recent developments may lend credence to the suggestion by some climate advocates that the Biden administration could use Dodd-Frank to inhibit or prohibit investments in fossil fuels and related infrastructure, such as proposed natural gas pipelines and natural gas-fired power plants. A January report argued that climate risks could be grounds for financial regulators to require bank holding companies, insurers, and asset managers to divest from companies that engage in deforestation or cause high emissions. By using the federal government’s many financial levers, the Biden administration could further hasten the transition to a decarbonized electricity sector.

Michael B. Gerrard is a professor of environmental and energy law at Columbia Law School, and founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. He formerly chaired the faculty of Columbia’s Earth Institute, and the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. His most recent book is Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States (co-edited with John Dernbach). MOREABOUT MICHAEL GERRARD →

Washington Post, Dec 2020

Power plays

Trump moves to sell Arctic oil leases before Biden takes office.

The Bureau of Land Management announced that an auction of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will take place in early January, a timetable that could allow leases to be finalized before Biden’s inauguration.

“The announcement of a lease sale comes sooner than some expected: The Bureau of Land Management did not wait for the comment and nominations period to officially end before scheduling a sale date,” NPR reports.

Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Susanne Miller/Reuters/USFWS handout)
Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Susanne Miller/Reuters/USFWS handout) (Handout ./Reuters)

It’s unclear how much interest the sale, set for Jan. 6, will generate among oil and gas companies, some of whom may be deterred by staunch political opposition to the project and lawsuits from environmental groups. The nation’s largest banks have all ruled out financing for oil and gas development projects in the Arctic. 

Jockeying continues for top roles under a Biden administration.
  • The DNC Environment and Climate Council, a permanent group created in 2019 to push the Democratic Party to prioritize climate change, has endorsed Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to be secretary of agriculture. If nominated and confirmed, Fudge would be the first African American woman in the Cabinet post. She’s likely to face competition from Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota also considered to be on Biden’s shortlist.
  • The DNC climate council also endorsed Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to serve as secretary of the interior. Haaland, who boasts the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement along with other progressive advocacy groups, could face competition from former interior deputy secretary Michael Connor. Either contender, if nominated and confirmed, would become the first Native American to hold the Cabinet position.
  • On Wednesday the Biden team offered New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) the role of interior secretary, but she turned it down, our colleagues Amy Goldstein and Toluse Olorunnipa report.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
  • Meanwhile, more than 70 groups, including the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Greenpeace USA, wrote a letter to Biden urging him not to nominate Mary Nichols to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. As chair of the California Air Resources Board, Nichols won plaudits for her ability to bring businesses on board with the state’s emissions standards, but some progressive environmental groups say that she has not done enough to prioritize poor and minority communities.
Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board. (Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg)
Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board. (Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg)
  • Biden announced hat Brian Deese will head his National Economic Council. Deese played a leading role in the auto industry bailout under Barack Obama and later helped craft the Paris climate agreement. The appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, has divided environmental groups. Although some see it as a sign that the administration will prioritize climate issues in its economic policy, some environmental activists objected to Deese’s work at the asset manager BlackRock, which has investments in fossil fuel companies.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) will chair the House Agriculture Committee.

House Democrats voted to elect Scott as the chairman of the committee, following an recommendation from the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the Hill reports. Scott will become the first African American to hold the position. 

“Picking Scott, who represents parts of the Atlanta metropolitan area, reflects a shift in the tradition of selecting a chair from a rural area and shows the growing importance the party places on the committee’s work dealing with food stamps and the school lunch program,” the Hill writes.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) (Bill O'Leary/Pool via Reuters)
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) (Bill O’Leary/Pool via Reuters)
The House passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

The bill, which limits transportation and possession of lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats, was featured in the hit Netflix documentary series “Tiger King,” which depicted Joe Exotic, a tiger keeper and zoo owner with an outsized personality in Oklahoma. Lawmakers voted to pass the bill, which will now head to the Senate.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

In a bizarre coincidence, a tiger attacked a volunteer at the animal sanctuary of Carole Baskin, one of the chief proponents of the legislation who was also featured in the documentary, hours before the House passed the bill. As our colleague Jaclyn Peiser reports: “On Thursday morning, Candy Couser, who has volunteered at the “Tiger King” star’s Tampa animal sanctuary for five years, was about to feed a 3-year-old male tiger named Kimba, when she noticed something was off with his cage. Kimba was locked out of the section where he usually ate. Without waiting for a supervisor to help, Couser broke protocol and opened the first gate, according to Big Cat Rescue, and reached into the cage to unclip the second one. “That’s when Kimba lunged at Couser, sunk his teeth into the 69-year-old’s arm and ‘nearly tore it off at the shoulder.’ “

The Trump administration approved seismic testing to search for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a record of decision allowing oil and gas companies to continue a controversial method to search for oil deposits in the Gulf’s Outer continental shelf, the Hill reports. Although the bureau included some measures to mitigate the impacts of seismic testing on wildlife, it rejected proposals to stop or reduce the testing.AD

Critics argue that the testing is dangerous to marine wildlife and that the proposed mitigation measures will be insufficient to protect endangered species.

Two more coal companies go into bankruptcy.

White Stallion Energy LLC and Lighthouse Resources Inc filed for bankruptcy this week, blaming low prices for thermal coal and declining coal consumption, the Wall Street Journal reports. The coal sector has been squeezed by the retirement of coal-fired power plants and competition with cheaper energy sources, like natural gas.