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Biden moves climate action to the forefront

From left, President Joe Biden, John Kerry, Ryan Flynn, and Sen. Martin Heinrich

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inaugural speech, he singled out climate change as one of four national crises he will immediately focus on alongside the pandemic, the country’s economic downturn and racial inequality.

“A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said.

After less than two weeks in office, the president has acted swiftly on his climate change priority, unveiling sweeping policy initiatives through executive orders that will have a profound effect on nearly every sector of the national economy. That includes direct impacts on all states, but especially on New Mexico as the country’s third-largest oil and gas producer.

The president’s rapidly emerging policies are generating alarm among oil and gas producers, and opposition from Republicans in Congress who fear Biden’s initiatives will inflict immense economic damage and massive job losses in the fossil fuel industry.

Environmentalists, however, widely applaud Biden’s efforts as critical to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Paris, Keystone and more

Executive action began on Biden’s first day through orders announcing the nation’s reentry into the Paris Accord on climate, cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, federal review of more than 100 environmental policies enacted under former President Donald Trump to pave the way for rolling them back, and a 60-day halt on permitting for new oil and gas drilling leases on public lands.

On Wednesday, the White House followed up with the most comprehensive presidential decrees ever to combat climate change. The new order elevates climate considerations into an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security, outlining a “whole of government” approach to tackle climate issues through every federal agency.

The order confirms Biden’s intent to host an international “Leaders’ Climate Summit” on Earth Day, April 22. It creates a new position, the special presidential envoy for climate, with a seat on the National Security Council. It orders the director of national intelligence to prepare a report on the security implications of climate change. It also directs all agencies to develop strategies for integrating climate considerations into their work.

Among other directives, Biden also ordered an indefinite “pause” by the Department of the Interior on all new oil and gas leases on federal land and water to permit a “rigorous review” and reform of the approval processes for fossil fuel development on public lands.

Carbon-free goals

The president’s new top climate officers say Biden’s policies aim to fundamentally push the economy irreversibly down a carbon-free path, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for future administrations to reverse course, as happened under Trump.

“I think we can achieve things in the course of the next four years that will move the marketplace, the private sector, global finance, innovation and research that in fact no one, no political person in the future, will be able to undo,” said John Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, in a White House press briefing Wednesday.

In fact, in a keynote speech Jan. 21 at the inaugural meeting of the B20 — the G20’s new dialogue forum with the business community — Kerry said Biden is setting an aggressive course to control global warming and reverse “four wasted years” under Trump.

That includes phasing out coal five times faster than in recent years, phasing in electric vehicles 22 times faster, increasing tree cover five times faster and ramping up renewable energy six times faster, Kerry said.

Industry response

The pace of change and lack of consultation with business leaders has alarmed the fossil fuel industry. The American Petroleum Institute warned the indefinite “pause” on oil and gas leases on public lands could be potentially devastating, depending on the policies that come out of the Interior Department’s review of leasing and permitting processes.

But the industry is still open to working with the Biden administration, API president and CEO Mike Sommers told reporters in a national press call Wednesday with industry leaders from four states. New Mexico Oil and Gas Association executive director Ryan Flynn was one of the leaders on the call.

In a sharp reversal from previous API positions, Sommers said industry is willing to support new federal regulations to control methane emissions in natural gas production, and it’s open to discussing a federal price, or tax, on carbon emissions, especially through market mechanisms such as cap-and-trade.

“API stands ready to work with the administration, particularly on the issue of methane, and look for other areas for common ground,” Sommers told reporters.

Flynn said New Mexico could play a leadership role in pursuing dialogue, given local industry’s collaborative approach in state-level efforts to develop new methane regulations and other environmental policies related to oil and gas production here.

“In New Mexico, our industry has demonstrated it’s a willing partner in addressing climate change by coming to the table to engage in a productive way and not being obstructive, resistant, or antagonistic,” Flynn told the Journal. “We will engage, and we will support policies that at times are difficult for us.”

But for that to happen, the Biden administration needs to take an “inclusive” approach, Flynn said.

Congress split

Congressional Republicans, however, are working to limit Biden’s executive actions. They’ve introduced legislation in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Keystone XL pipeline, force Biden to report to Congress before he submits new emission-reduction targets under the Paris Accord and allow legislators to reject those targets through a “joint resolution of disapproval.”

Senate Republicans also introduced legislation Thursday to prohibit the president from blocking energy or mineral leasing and permitting on federal lands and waters without congressional approval.

New Mexico’s lone congressional Republican, Rep. Yvette Herrell, plans to introduce matching legislation in the House.

Still, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., believes some Biden policies may win bipartisan support. In December, Congress approved an array of clean energy initiatives before Trump left office, including extension of existing tax breaks for wind, solar and carbon-capture projects; a new 30% tax incentive for offshore wind development; a new mandate for industry to reduce super-warming hydrofluorocarbon emissions by 85% over the next 15 years; and $40 billion for research and development of new carbon-free energy technologies.

“That was quite possibly the biggest climate bill ever passed, and it was done in a bipartisan way,” Heinrich told the Journal. “… I will sit down with my colleagues to figure every path forward we can. I think a lot can be done without getting into a partisan food fight.”

Green response

Environmentalists are celebrating Biden’s new climate initiatives. WildEarth Guardians senior climate and energy campaigner Rebecca Sobel said Biden’s far-reaching executive action on Wednesday marks a “watershed moment.”

“President Biden’s order promises to mark the first time the U.S. federal government commits to getting out of the business of selling fossil fuels and into the business of putting climate first,” Sobel said in a statement. “New Mexico officials should be grateful to the federal government for leading by example.”

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