- Justin Rollatt
- Environmental Affairs Editor
Fossil fuels have been the cornerstone of the prosperity of the United States for more than a century.
The country’s economy, security and society depend on it.
However, over the past few days since his inauguration, the new American president has waged war on coal, oil and natural gas with a decisiveness that has surprised everyone.
I spoke to the man Joe Biden assigned to designing his plans to combat climate change, John Kerry.
“It is absolutely one of his highest priorities, absolutely. And he will make more progress on this issue than any previous president,” Kerry assured me.
This seriousness is reflected in his choice of John Kerry as his special envoy on climate change.
Kerry was former President Barack Obamas Secretary of State and principal architect of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit.
In other words, he is someone who has a deep understanding of climate change coping mechanisms, who is aware of the current climate change diplomacy and personally knows many of the key people the United States has to work with.
An ambitious start
In the past few days, the president has already exceeded expectations.
We knew that he was planning to re-join the Paris climate agreement. We did not know that after a few days, Gina McCarthy, who is responsible for internal climate change, would be ordered to draw up plans to commit the United States to “the largest possible reduction” of carbon emissions.
We expected that he would try to stop the giant Keystone XL oil pipeline, not withdraw its license on the first day of his term, and immediately stop the 2,000-kilometer pipeline project.
We knew that he was planning to make climate change a priority in decision-making, but we did not expect the Department of Defense to order the “Pentagon” to make it a national security issue.
Climate change is part of what is known as the “whole government” approach to the issue.
“He is mobilizing all of the United States government ministries and agencies to focus on the climate, and he is intent on trying to restore Americas credibility and reputation,” Kerry said.
His efforts impressed even more hard-line environmental activists.
Environmental activist Bill McKibben says, “This torrent of successive behavior leaves a feeling of adopting the tactic of shock and awe (used in warfare).”
He believes that the aim of the torrent of executive orders is to demonstrate a position.
McKibben says the president wants to send “a definitive signal about the end of an era and the beginning of another.”
He adds that this signal is aimed at investors, as “Biden clarifies that fossil fuels are not a safe bet, or even a good bet for real gain.”
Implications for the oil industry
The oil industry has been hit by a shock, as stock prices plummet and Goldman Sachs warned of a drop in US crude supplies.
“The industry is terrified of these changes. They are more direct, ferocious and faster than they expected,” the chief executive of an oil services company told Bloomberg.
Biden and his team worked meticulously on presenting this agenda as a vehicle for job creation and economic stimulus in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
Kerry echoes the now-familiar slogan, “build back better”.
“If we are going to invest new money, let us invest in clean energy, to invest in clean jobs, to invest in technology and other things that build the future instead of remaining prisoners of the past,” he says.
Meanwhile, a number of steps are being taken to benefit those in the fossil fuel industry.
Hydraulic fracturing (for the extraction of oil and natural gas), for example, will not stop, but with the implementation of stricter rules. The Biden administration also promised to re-hire fossil fuel workers in other jobs in order to shut down nearly a million oil and gas wells that pose a health and safety risk.
The plan to build 1.5 million energy-efficient homes and manufacture and install half a million new electric vehicle charging stations will provide millions of “permanent wage” jobs.
This is in addition to a pledge to replace the government’s 650,000 fleet of cars.
However, Biden at the same time reiterated his desire to end fossil fuel subsidies, and ordered a ban on new leases for oil and gas exploration on federal lands and said that at least a third of all federal lands should be preserved as reserves.
He also ordered the relevant agencies to accelerate the rate of licensing for renewable energy projects, as part of his efforts to double wind energy production by 2030 and make the electricity sector carbon-free by 2035.
“Support” the private sector
Kerry stresses that these initiatives do not rely on the narrow majority of Democrats in the Senate. They are about areas in which the president actually has power.
“This does not mean that the president will not try to make Congress a part of what is happening,” Kerry adds. “He definitely wants its members to be involved in this process. But it will not depend only on one source.”
Biden, for example, plans to reimpose and reinforce controls imposed during the Obama era and canceled by Trump on the three largest sources of greenhouse gases: cars, power plants and methane from oil and gas wells.
The solution, Kerry says, is a “massive shift” in private sector attitudes.
He adds that companies are dealing with climate change “frankly and directly”.
Car manufacturers, for example, tend to accept the need to raise fuel economy standards.
This week, General Motors announced plans to phase out fully petroleum and diesel cars and trucks and sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035.
Some major oil and gas companies have also acknowledged the need to reimpose some emissions restrictions that were lifted by former President Trump.
But Kerry knows there will be opposition from others in the fossil fuel industry and the legislators who support it.
Democratic Senator Joe Mansion in West Virginia is likely to be a thorn in the side of the Biden administration. He is set to lead the Senate Energy Committee and was elected as an advocate of the coal industry in his state.
His campaign was notorious for including a TV ad that showed him aiming with a hunting rifle on a copy of Obamas climate change laws.
It should be noted here that the Senate is divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, while Vice President Kamala Harris has the power to dismiss in the event of a tie between the two sides.
The United States returns to the international scene “with humility”
There will be greater freedom to operate in the international arena.
Indeed, this may be where the extent of change that Joe Biden and John Kerry can make will be evident.
Kerry calls the Glasgow climate summit in November this year “the best last chance for the world to unite to avert the worst consequences of the climate change crisis.”
It is an appropriate opportunity for discussion.
The cost of renewables has fallen sharply since he led the US delegation to the Paris talks.
Many countries are considering green investments (adopting environmentally friendly technology) as a way to stimulate their economies after Covid.
This is in line with pledges made by more than 100 countries – including China and the European Union – to reduce carbon emissions to zero by mid-century.
Kerry realizes that the United States must act cautiously, saying, “I think the fact that the United States has been absent for four years forces us to act with sensitivity and humility.”
The hope, Kerry notes, is that decisive action on the home front will give credibility to US efforts to encourage other countries to raise their climate ambitions.
He says that he and the rest of the US administration will work hard with the UK government to ensure the success of the Glasgow summit.
“I will not expect anything else, because that will be a huge failure of humankind.” Fossil fuels have been the cornerstone of the prosperity of the United States for more than a century.