The president has tools to address climate change — he just needs to use them
UPDATE, July 15, 1:54 pm MT — President Biden issued a statement saying he “will take strong executive action to meet this moment.” I hope this article is a helpful starting point. —Aaron
To the dismay — but not surprise — of Democrats, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told party leaders on Thursday he would not support new legislation to address the climate crisis. Senate negotiators had already jettisoned other legislative priorities, including paid family leave and free preschool, in hopes that the senator would eventually support some sort of climate package. Manchin, who made millions from his family coal business and has accepted more money from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, strung party leadership along for months.
The White House has not yet commented on Manchin’s announcement. But with legislation now off the table entirely, reporters and conservation groups alike will quickly turn their focus to the climate tools at President Biden’s disposal — and he has many.
Oil and gas leasing
The most significant area where the Biden administration can quickly address climate change is the federal oil and gas leasing program. The program is governed by the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which gives broad discretion to the Interior secretary over how and when national public lands are to be leased, and under what terms. The administration conducted a review of the onshore leasing system that found significant deficiencies, but any rulemaking to address the climate crisis will be a lengthy process.
The Interior Department took important first steps in the most recent public lands oil and gas lease sale by shrinking the acres leased by 80 percent from what oil and gas companies wanted and raising the royalty rate that drillers pay from 12.5% to 18.75%. But reforms like that are only a start, and to make them stick into the future the Interior Department must undertake a top-to-bottom rulemaking that puts total carbon emissions at the forefront. Any future leasing must ensure that oil and gas companies fully cover the climate costs our children will pay when or if they drill on our public lands. The Biden administration has the authority to do that now, under current law. Secretary Haaland and her team just need to do the work to codify the policy.
Similarly, the administration has started on a five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico but has not signaled whether the final plan will go far enough to meet the president’s climate goals. Interior Secretary Haaland was noncommittal during Congressional hearings this week when asked if the administration will hold any more offshore lease sales. President Biden should make it clear that he expects the Interior Department to end offshore leasing because any future sales are fundamentally incompatible with America’s climate needs.
Land protection and national monuments
President Biden also has the authority to protect public land from development. By using the Antiquities Act to declare new national monuments, the president can take sensitive areas off the table for future drilling while ensuring public lands help slow climate change, rather than exacerbate it.
For months, locally-led campaigns have been urging President Biden to protect Castner Range in Texas and Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada as national monuments. The Center for Western Priorities’ 2022 Winning the West Poll, released this week, found near-unanimous support for using the Antiquities Act to protect areas of Colorado that are included in the 400,000-acre CORE Act, a bill that has languished in Congress despite its popularity at home.
Fast-track the good projects, stop the bad ones
President Biden also has the authority to double down on his existing successful climate initiatives. His administration has massively expanded plans for renewable energy production on public lands and in American waters. A February offshore wind auction for New York and New Jersey brought in more than $4 billion. Just this week, the Bureau of Land Management gave the green light to a transmission line that will pave the way for more solar energy in California and Arizona. The president can order the Interior Department to dedicate more resources to renewable energy siting and permitting to bring more green energy online sooner, while ensuring development happens in a way that protects wildlife and ecosystems.
The administration should also stop proposed projects that would undercut his climate agenda. At the top of that list is ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in Alaska, which the Biden administration has supported in court despite warnings that it would lead to decades more carbon emissions in a place that is literally melting because of climate change. The Washington Post reported this week that President Biden was keeping Willow and other climate-damaging projects on the table in hopes of securing Manchin’s support on a bill that would, as a whole, provide more climate benefits.
Now that it’s clear Manchin was never an honest broker and had no intention of voting for even a sparse climate package, President Biden has no reason to keep playing footsie with him by considering terrible projects like Willow. The Interior Department can issue a new environmental review of Willow that states the agency’s preferred plan is to not allow the project to go forward at all. Other oil and gas projects in development should also be halted until the companies behind them pay for the full climate costs of more carbon emissions. Some states and cities are already going down this path, suing oil and gas companies for causing climate damage. Making companies offset the damages caused by new projects — also known as compensatory mitigation — is well within the realm of actions the president can take now, without Congressional help or hindrance.
Failure is not an option
Sen. Ron Wyden, a climate hawk, expressed his disappointment in Manchin Thursday night, but also said that “If we can’t move forward as we had hoped, we need to salvage as much of this package as possible. The expression that failure is not an option is overused, but failure really is not an option here.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich went even further on Friday, questioning why Manchin was still the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That’s a fair question, to be sure, but also somewhat beside the point in a 50–50 Senate where Manchin can still block the passage of any climate bill by joining with Republicans who are also opposed to climate legislation.
It’s clear now that there is only one sure way to salvage climate action — it sits squarely in the Oval Office.