Climate promises will crash into regulatory bureaucracy

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Before he became president-elect, Joe Biden said a top priority for his administration would be to reengage in efforts at home and abroad to address climate change, including rejoining the Paris climate accord, which President Donald Trump disavowed.

Biden pledged to sign executive orders “with unprecedented reach that go well beyond the Obama-Biden administration platform and put us on the right track” on Day One of his presidency. In addition to rejoining the Paris agreement, he could rescind executive orders speeding fossil fuel project infrastructure.

He also promised to reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050 and a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, while undoing a host of Trump regulatory walkbacks weakening environmental protections. Other promises include requiring steep methane curbs for new and existing oil and gas sources and making fuel economy standards for vehicles even stronger than those adopted during the Obama administration.

The promises would require a yearslong process to repeal existing rules before imposing new ones with stronger emissions controls. Given that is the likeliest way to drive deep carbon emissions reductions and perennial uncertainty about whether Congress will adopt legislation in this area, climate activists will have to play the long game, as nothing happens overnight on regulation.

“The Biden administration is going to understand a large part of their agenda will need to be accomplished through the regulatory process and so it’s important for the Biden administration to get their agencies started on Day One in rolling back the Trump deregulatory legacy and kick-starting the Biden regulatory agenda,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen. “Time is of the essence.”

There’s division among some on the left about how aggressively to employ the Congressional Review Act if Democrats win back the Senate. The obscure statute allows Congress to nullify regulations finished up in the waning days of the prior administration, but some worry its implications have been insufficiently tested in courts.

Another issue the new administration must grapple with is what to do with litigation under way on high-profile regulations, such as the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. Repealing that rule, which replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan’s stricter carbon emissions limits on power plants, would leave an uncertain road ahead, some fear, as courts gave uncertain signals about whether the Clean Power Plan would survive court challenges.

Biden’s pledges also mean that preparing for and combating climate change will become a bigger priority for the armed forces.

The Democratic Party’s official 2020 platform highlighted a greater role for the Pentagon in climate policy. "We believe the implications of climate change for national security and the Department of Defense can no longer be an afterthought, but must be at the core of all policy and operational plans to secure our vital interests," it stated.

One approach likely will be efforts to make military bases more energy independent and better preparing installations and military formations for the consequences of climate change.

“I’m relatively certain the national security impacts of climate change will become more central to defense planning, as well as preparation for pandemics and biodefense," said Robert Work, who served as deputy secretary of defense in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

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