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Climate

Biden Just Caved on a Bunch of Climate Rules. Or Did He?

Here are three more questions to ask after a weird few weeks of policymaking.

Smokestacks and the EPA logo.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Let’s start with a quick recap: In late-January, the Biden administration turned the energy world on its ear by announcing that it would pause approvals of new export facilities for liquified natural gas — a decision greeted with joy by activists and indignation by lawmakers. A few weeks later, The New York Timesreported that the administration was planning to ease up on planned regulations on car tailpipe emissions that would have pushed U.S. vehicle sales to become mostly battery-electric by 2030.

Then, on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it planned to delay its proposed regulations to rein in emissions from the country’s existing fleet of natural gas power plants. The administration still plans to finalize the tailpipe regulations, along with new, more stringent rules for existing coal plants and new natural gas plants on its original timeline, likely in the next few weeks. Oh, and it also launched a war on Chinese EVs.

This has left many with an understandable sense of whiplash. As the Times’ Lisa Friedman put it, “The weakening of the Biden administration’s two most ambitious climate rules would call into question the ability of the United States to meet the president’s goal of cutting United States emissions roughly in half by the end of this decade.” But … does it? There’s a lot we still don’t know about the administration’s plans, including what the new tailpipe rule will say and how the EPA will approach revising those gas plant regulations.

Here are a few more questions to consider.

1. What would the power plant rule have accomplished?

Climate advocates were dissatisfied with the EPA’s original proposal for existing natural gas plants. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimated, based on EPA’s analysis, that the rules for existing plants accounted for only about 20% of the proposal’s overall emission reductions. Along with groups like Clean Air Task Force and Evergreen Action, the NRDC was concerned that the majority of gas plants weren’t covered by the rule, and that the compliance timeline was too slow. Others, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice, were concerned about the rule’s reliance on carbon capture and the lack of restrictions on other emissions of concern from gas plants, like methane and nitrous oxide.

Industry, for its part, also didn’t like it. The Edison Electric Group, the main trade group for electric utilities, argued that the technological fixes the EPA was proposing to reduce emissions from existing plants — either carbon capture or a blend of clean hydrogen and natural gas — were not mature enough and therefore that the rule was not achievable.

In justifying the decision to delay, EPA administrator Michael Regan sent mixed signals. In an interview with Bloomberg, Regan said it was a way to achieve both “more flexibilities” and “more pollution reduction.” The first reads as an appeal to industry, the second to environmentalists.

Groups from both sectors claimed the news as a victory. The American Petroleum Institute’s president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, Dustin Meyer, welcomed the delay, stressing the gas fleet’s importance to grid reliability as electricity demand grows. Emily Sanford Fisher, executive vice president for clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, told the Washington Post, “we appreciate that EPA has acknowledged our concerns.” Meanwhile, Earthjustice seemed to take to heart the EPA’s pledge to make the rule tougher on toxic, non-carbon pollutants like formaldehyde. The group’s president, Abigail Dillen, called it a “more ambitious strategy.”

It’s hard to imagine how the EPA could make the rule tougher on pollution while also making it more flexible. In reality, what the delay could achieve is no rule at all.

Not all environmental groups are optimistic. The Sunrise Movement accused Biden of “caving to pressure from the gas lobby” and said the delay leaves the fate of power plant regulations up to the results of the upcoming election. Frank Sturges, an attorney at Clean Air Task Force, said in a press release that he was “extremely disappointed” by the news. The group estimates that the share of power plant emissions from gas plants will nearly double by 2040 without the regulations. “The shot clock is winding down for reducing power plant emissions, and rather than taking the shot to eliminate emissions from existing gas plants, EPA has chosen to sit on the bench,” Sturges said. — Emily Pontecorvo

2. What effect will this have further down the ballot?

It’s easy to forget about the non-presidential races during a presidential election year. But it is House and Senate elections in states like Ohio, Montana, Arizona, West Virginia, and Maine that might actually be the best predictors for how the country moves forward — or doesn’t — in the green energy transition.

The EPA’s decision to delay some of its power plant regulations appears to be at least partially a concession to these imperiled Democrats, even as the Biden administration has tried to play up its climate bona fides to general election voters. In December, five senators — Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema (an Independent who caucuses with the Dems), and Montana’s Jon Tester — signed a letter opposing the EPA’s power plant emission rule, calling it a threat to jobs as well as the price and reliability of electricity, concerns that are common among centrist voters.

The letter isn’t just grumbling among the ranks; these are critical stakes. Intelligencer has described the 2024 Senate race as “the best for the GOP in living memory,” in part thanks to Manchin's impending retirement. If Democrats only lost the West Virginia seat and Trump won the election, the GOP would win the Senate majority with a vice-president-tie-breaking 50-50 split.

And that’s the best case scenario for climate policy in the event of a Biden loss. Democrats are defending three total seats in states that Trump carried in 2020 (Ohio, West Virginia, and Montana, which he won by 16 points) plus five others in states that Biden won, but barely (like Arizona, where Sinema has yet to commit to running for reelection). Meanwhile, Brown, Tester, and possibly Sinema are all running in “toss-up” elections that could break either way. Shoring up support for them in states where the economy will likely play better than the environment among voters is good politics, even if it’s questionable climate policy.

The same dilemma exists in the House, even if seizing control of the lower chamber looks more promising for the left. Sure enough, several Democratic Representatives also sent a letter opposing the EPA rules after their Senate colleagues did, with North Carolina’s Donald Davis and Maine’s Jared Golden among the electorally threatened signatories. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who represents the rural southwest corner of Washington state, also faces an uphill race and has expressed disapproval of the regulations; Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur, in a Republican-leaning district, has likewise spoken publicly against them.

It was because of the 2020 Democratic trifecta that Biden was able to pass the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and it’s partially because of the 2022 flip of the House and the current 50-50 Senate that progress has ground to a halt. What happens to the climate agenda in 2026 and beyond will depend on a Biden win — but not just. — Jeva Lange

3. How does labor fit in?

One other wildcard is what weakening the rules could mean for union support. Biden has staked his presidency on transitioning to a zero-carbon energy system — and also on meeting union demands and creating a more fair economy. While both ideas are broadly appealing to Biden’s coalition (and especially to young voters), they can sometimes come into conflict on the specifics.

Shawn Fain, the popular leader of the United Auto Workers, has repeatedly expressed concern about Biden’s support for a rapid EV transition, fearing that it will set back the legacy American automakers. That is one reason Fain initially withheld the union’s endorsement of Biden’s reelection bid.

According to the Times, Fain has also repeatedly raised the proposed rules’ stringency with White House officials. In comments filed with the EPA, the union asked that the final rule ramp up its carbon requirements at a slower rate than initially proposed.

The power plant rules could also attract some skepticism from labor. Although the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers endorsed Biden nearly a year ago, it fought an earlier version of the EPA’s power plant rules in 2014.

Changing how labor unions feel about the rules isn’t only important to Biden’s ability to sell the rules politically; it may also help him in court. The EPA and Biden administration would much rather have the unions on their side when GOP-led states sue over the regulations, as they almost certainly will. — Robinson Meyer

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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