Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see COUNTERPOINT: Biden’s Climate/Energy Policies Are an Exercise in Magical Thinking.
The summer of 2021 was a season of climate disasters in the U.S. and worldwide.
We saw brutal heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, raging wildfires from California to Siberia, and severe flooding from New York City to Germany to China.
Scientific studies, like the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, confirm that severe climate impacts are already here, at 1 degree Celsius average temperature increase over pre-industrial levels. And unfortunately, those temperatures are rising.
At this point, there’s no real question about what needs to happen. The science is increasingly clear that addressing climate change requires phasing out fossil fuel production and replacing it with something cleaner.
One recent study calculates that we must leave 60 percent of known oil and gas reserves — and 90 percent of known coal reserves — in the ground if we want even a reasonable chance at holding average temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The politics of doing this are, of course, quite difficult. But while our politics may accept half measures and compromises, our climate cannot. Any energy policy must be evaluated within these unforgiving constraints.
For a while, President Biden’s looked quite promising.
Biden issued Executive Orders in January 2021 that took steps in the right direction. He reinstated President Obama’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, placed a moratorium on oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, and ordered federal agencies to identify and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.
Since then, however, his energy policy has reverted to business as usual.
All year, Congress has debated the scale of investments it will make in things like renewable energy, electric vehicles, public transportation, and the like. In many cases, it’s offering far less than even the Biden administration’s modest requests.
That puts the onus on Biden to find areas where he can bring down America’s carbon footprint on his own authority. But here he’s been disappointing.
One area where the administration has enormous discretion to act without going through Congress is in the permitting of fossil fuel projects. However, far from denying permits and subjecting proposed fossil fuel projects to rigorous environmental review, the administration has allowed extremely destructive projects to proceed without hindrance.
These include the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in Northern Minnesota. Tar sands oil emits 17 percent more greenhouse gases than the average crude oil refined in the U.S.
Including emissions from burning “petcoke,” a solid fuel byproduct of tar sands that’s 30 percent more carbon-intensive than coal, the emissions from tar sands oil are significantly worse. The oil carried by the Line 3 pipeline would emit as much as 50 coal-fired power plants — more than Minnesota’s total 2016 emissions.
Tar sands oil is also more difficult to clean up after a spill than other crude oils, posing a serious water quality risk for the Indigenous communities who live along its route, as well as a threat to their treaty rights and cultural and spiritual self-determination.
Another destructive project is the Formosa Plastics facility in Louisiana.
The facility is located in “Cancer Alley,” a region with a large Black population where the cancer risk from breathing petrochemical air toxins is more than three times the national average. Shockingly, the Formosa Plastics facility might double cancer risks in an already severely polluted area.
Thankfully, the Biden administration put the project on temporary hold — a welcome step. But there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be canceled outright.
Elsewhere, the Biden administration is funding and propagandizing dangerous false solutions such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is not proven to work at scale, and relying on it to address the climate emergency is a dangerous gamble.
It’s also inordinately expensive; projects in Texas, Australia, and elsewhere have been costly failures. Environmental justice movements resoundingly reject CCS. But the fossil fuel industry loves it since it would give them cover to keep profiting from pollution.
Compared to its immediate predecessor, the Biden administration has offered some good steps forward on climate and energy. But it needs to stop acting like we can compromise on the basic demands of science — and start acting like we’re in a climate emergency.