President Biden’s environmental record
Last week, Joe Biden deftly avoided US fiscal default and managed to save massive environmental funding from the Cut Inflation Act. If America had defaulted, the economic disruption would have delayed the transition to a renewable resource-based economy, as the capital needed to fund the transition would have retreated to the kind of assets you can hide under your mattress. To pass the bill, he was forced to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act-based process for environmental review of energy projects and expedite the Mountain Valley pipeline. When a president’s political opponents control a chamber of Congress and the Supreme Court, his ability to maneuver politically is limited. Projects like the Mountain Valley pipeline or drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic are nonsense. One day, these projects will be seen as the last gasps of the fading fossil fuel industry. But while fossil fuels are on the way out, it will take a generation before they are phased out, and in the meantime I am writing this article on a computer powered by fossil fuels. Almost all of us still need fossil fuels, so let’s ditch the fantasy that all burning of fossil fuels should stop immediately. The environmental balance sheets streamlined by the budget deal will not only benefit fossil fuel projects. Renewable energy projects and upgraded power transmission lines are also delayed by the same processes used to delay fossil fuel projects. I’m glad that all these lawyers and environmental interest groups can raise funds and live off these constant appeals, but an endless process without final decisions serves no one.
The fact is that almost everything we humans and our lifestyles do damages the environment. The choice is always around the degree of damage. We need to be more mindful of the trade-offs we make and more realistic about our actual choices. We should also pay more attention to the record of achievements and what is happening in the real world rather than symbolic. Rather than focusing on targets and symbols, let’s look at performance: what progress have we made in transitioning to an environmentally sustainable economy? How much renewable energy is currently being used compared to last year? How many electric vehicles were sold compared to last year? How does this year’s pollution record compare to last year’s? Joe Biden’s administration has followed the president with the worst environmental record of any US leader since the EPA was established in 1970. Donald Trump and his cronies have done everything to destroy environmental protection policy in the states -United. They eliminated the rules, stopped enforcement, questioned established science, and always prioritized private profit over public health.
Let’s look at the EPA itself. In 1970, when it was created, the Agency had 4,084 agents. By the time President Nixon left office in disgrace in 1974, it had already grown to around 10,000. At its peak in fiscal year 1999, the EPA had 18,110 employees (thanks, Bill Clinton). Under President Obama (yes, Obama) it went from about 17,000 to 15,000, and under Trump it hit a low of 14,172. And during Trump’s tenure, many of the top scientists in the agency fled due to political interference in their work. In fiscal year 2023, the EPA is back to 15,115 employees and continues to grow. It is budget has grown from $1 billion to more than $10 billion since Biden took office. The agency under Donald Trump was run first by an incapable and corrupt ideologue, then by a more skilled, but still ideological, bureaucrat. Under Biden, the EPA is led by the experienced and dedicated Michael Regan. Just as Bill Ruckelshaus had to rebuild the EPA after the disastrous reign of Anne Gorsuch (later Burford), Regan does the same after Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler decimated the agency and its morale. Unlike Trump, Ronald Reagan knew his re-election in 1984 would benefit from a viable EPA; he could not and did not allow the EPA to collapse.
In addition to beginning the rebuilding of the EPA, Biden led the enactment of the largest environmental funding laws ever enacted by a U.S. government. Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in 2021 included more than $300 billion for public green investments. The Cut Inflation Act included an additional $400 billion for renewable energy subsidies. These public investments have already stimulated billions of dollars of private investment in electric vehicles, charging stations and batteries.
Given the country’s political polarization and his own pragmatic streak, Biden decided he could further reduce greenhouse gases by lowering the price of renewables rather than raising the price of fossil fuels. He recognizes our current dependence on fossil fuels and wants to keep the price low by allowing a continuous supply. He knows that energy represents a larger share of the budgets of low-income households than those of higher-income households. Over the past year, gasoline at the pump has dropped by about a dollar a gallon. Biden is betting, I believe correctly, that the market will eventually move away from fossil fuels as renewables continue to drop in price and grow in reliability and convenience. But Biden isn’t just using grants and infrastructure to accelerate the transition to a green economy. The president has not given up using regulatory tools. Three regulations demonstrate its commitment and know-how. The first is proposed regulations to gradually increase fuel consumption requirements for motor vehicle fleets so that the only way to meet them over time is through the sale of electric vehicles. The second concerns power plant-specific regulations on greenhouse gas emissions — a direction mandated by the Court’s rejection of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The third is the proposed regulation by the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their carbon emissions and environmental risks. This SEC rule will have a massive effect on the behavior of the private sector. It is as important as the development of generally accepted accounting practices that began in the 1930s. It will strengthen the role of sustainability managers, just as financial disclosure led to the development of corporate finance managers.
The Biden administration is also using the massive purchasing power of the federal government to decarbonize our energy system. La Poste has changed course and is buying electric vehicles. In addition, by executive order, each federal agency establishes sustainability officers to monitor and reduce the agencies’ environmental footprints.
Taken together, the Biden administration’s environmental funding, practices and policies are an amazing example of environmental progress and leadership. Despite this outstanding record, Biden and his team are being criticized by environmental interest groups for “selling out” and linking their support for the Fiscal Responsibility Act to ties to the fossil fuel industry. I see this as part of the monetization of political polarization that has come to characterize interest group politics in America. While fundraising for interest groups always had an element of fear – calling out the potential damage that could be done by political opponents – there was also a call to support a positive agenda as well. Many environmental interest groups today focus more on fear and even portray allies like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer as enemies. In a press release from the Climate Justice Alliance, its co-executive director Ozawa Bineshi Albert, in commenting on the environmental elements of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, observed that:
“In authorizing these provisions to be proposed and moving through the legislative process, President Biden, Senator Schumer (who is the second largest donor is the company behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline) and the House Minority Leader, Jeffries, invigorated business-backed politicians who are already pointing to more damaging bills and bills with this victory. That’s not climate leadership, that’s not justice.
I know these views are genuine and represent a real disappointment in our political process. But compromise is not corruption. People who disagree with you aren’t mean and corrupt, they just see the world differently. In the polarized political environment in which we live, we are fortunate to have leaders working to find common ground. Moreover, it is clear that President Biden believes in environmental justice and building a green economy. Maybe attacking him can help raise money from people who think all politicians are corrupt and selfish. But think of the alternative. The American right does not care about environmental protection and environmental justice. I suspect Biden doesn’t mind being attacked by the left because, coupled with the regular attacks from the right, it makes him look more moderate and centrist.
Joe Biden and his team have amassed a stunning record of environmental success. They navigated a political environment characterized by extreme and often strident supporters. Our success in environmental policy has always been the result of bipartisan dialogue and agreement. In the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans worked together to enact landmark environmental laws. Today, there is a quiet consensus on the need to rebuild our energy infrastructure and move away from fossil fuels. Companies are responding to pressure from employees and investors to clean up their operations. President Biden has been able to win extraordinary environmental funds for energy, water and other key programs because he understands that incentives to build a green economy are an easier sell than punishments for pollution . No elected official has a perfect environmental record, but Biden has the best environmental record of any president in American history.