How a Biden presidency will help Virginia’s energy transition

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Immediately following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I wrote a column titled “Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution.”

If you were to read it now, you would yawn. What seemed bold back then now feels like forecasting the inevitable. Of course coal has not come back. Of course wind and solar are cheaper now than fossil fuels. Of course people agree a zero-carbon future is achievable. 

Still, few of us could have predicted how far off course Trump would try to take us. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was the least of it. The Washington Post tallied more than 125 rollbacks of environmental regulations and policies over the past four years. Trump’s more flamboyant acts of perfidy distracted attention away from his sustained attack, not just on climate science, but on the laws protecting America’s lands, air and water.

Really, we should be grateful Trump staffed his administration with grifters and sycophants who repeatedly bungled the details and opened their decisions to legal challenge. Incompetence is underrated. Skilled managers would have done much more damage. 

Yet the past four years have also pushed us closer to the brink of climate chaos and the collapse of ecosystems. We wasted time we did not have. 

As president, Joe Biden will be able to undo most of the environmental rollbacks with new executive orders and agency actions. Biden has also promised a long list of new initiatives, though many of them would require Democratic control of the Senate. 

Virginia and other states partially filled the four-year void with commitments to decarbonize our electricity supply and build renewable energy. But even for Virginia the path to zero-carbon would be a lot easier with federal action. Public support for climate action is strong even from Republicans, though it’s hard to imagine a really aggressive climate bill getting a floor vote in the Senate while Mitch McConnell is in charge. (In my dreams, Maine Senator Susan Collins announces she is changing her party affiliation to Independent and will caucus with Democrats to get a climate bill passed. I have really great dreams.)

Let’s assume for now, though, that Joe is on his own. What can he do through executive orders and agency actions? A lot, it turns out, so I’ll just focus on a few high-profile moves and how they might affect the energy transition here in Virginia.

Carbon emissions: a new Clean Power Plan? Recall that back in 2016, the EPA finalized regulations under the Clean Air Act designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants with state-by-state targets. Lawsuits and backpedaling by the Trump EPA prevented the Clean Power Plan from ever taking effect, and the replacement plan was derided for its weakness

Four years later, a Biden EPA could use the same Clean Air Act authority to write new regulations. The thing is, though, the Clean Power Plan put the squeeze on coal-dependent states but would have had virtually no effect on Virginia. And that was before the Virginia Clean Economy Act set us on a path to decarbonization, putting Virginia ahead of any revamped rule that might come out of the EPA now. 

A better scenario for us would be if the threat of new climate action from EPA brought Republican senators to the table for a climate bill that would, say, impose a carbon tax (or fee-and-dividend) in return for stripping EPA of its authority to regulate carbon emissions. 

But I promised to focus on what Biden can do without Congress, so let’s get back to that. 

Coal. Among the protections Trump tried to roll back are EPA regulations like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Coal Ash Rule, both of which limit pollution caused by coal plants. While both are in litigation (see “bungling,” above), we can expect the EPA under Biden to reverse course and, if anything, tighten these protections. Virginia has already committed to closing most of its coal plants, a decision that will prove even wiser when coal plants have to meet stricter standards.  

Of course, these Trump regulatory rollbacks didn’t do the coal industry any good. Nationally, coal plants have continued to close at an even faster rate than they did during Obama’s second term. The false hopes Trump offered for a coal renaissance forestalled real efforts to help communities in Appalachia transition. 

Here in Virginia, even coalfields legislators understand the need to diversify the economy of Southwest Virginia. Biden’s election is their wake-up call to stop trying to revive a past that was never a golden era for workers anyway, however enriching it was for the coal bosses. 

Fracked gas. Biden made it clear he would not ban fracking other than on federal lands, but we can expect stronger regulations to limit the leakage of methane from wellheads, pipelines and storage infrastructure. That’s a Virginia priority, too. 

Energy efficiency. Federal efficiency requirements for products including appliances and HVAC systems have proven to be low-cost and consumer-friendly. A renewed focus on strong national standards will help reduce per-capita energy consumption and help Virginia meet its carbon reduction goals at less cost to consumers. 

Wind and solar. It would take legislation to extend federal tax credits for renewable energy, but there are other actions the Biden administration can take to support wind and solar. These include increased funding of R&D through the Department of Energy (a program that already has support in Congress), and removing tariffs on imported solar panels. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can also help wind and solar. FERC has caused its share of climate damage, most memorably for Virginians by approving the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. FERC’s decisions also control the playing field for the electricity sector, including rules that currently disadvantage wind and solar in the wholesale markets. These rules could just as easily be rewritten. Although FERC is an independent agency, Biden will have an opportunity to appoint climate-friendly FERC commissioners as vacancies occur and terms expire. 

And indeed, FERC is already starting to come around. Chairman Neil Chatterjee recently hosted a technical conference and issued a proposed policy statement on carbon pricing in regional markets, an act that may have led Trump to demote him this month. 

Offshore wind. Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issues offshore energy leases and oversees development of offshore projects, including wind farms. More than a year ago offshore wind activity at BOEM ground almost to a halt, setting back one project after another. Congress isn’t happy, and it may direct more funding to BOEM to help re-start the process. 

Biden will also direct BOEM to get out of the way of current projects and begin the process of designating new offshore lease areas for development. Both of these are critical to Virginia’s clean energy plans. (Of course, an investment tax credit for offshore wind would help, too — but there I go again, looking for legislation.)

Transportation. Until Trump came in, the auto industry was gradually improving fuel economy standards in new cars and light trucks. Biden will put that program back in place, and likely impose more stringent tailpipe emission standards. These moves will boost the transition to electric and hybrid vehicles and lead to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector, another Virginia priority.

Declaring a national climate emergency. It’s a long shot, but Biden could use his executive authority to declare a climate emergency the way Trump declared a national emergency to redirect funds from national defense to his border fence. There are many ways this could help the Virginia transition if Biden were to go this route. 

But of course he won’t. Biden is no Trump. And for that, we should all be grateful. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 12, 2020.