After Biden's climate bill: Three big steps toward America's energy transition

Biden's big bill is a breakthrough on energy — but there's a long way to go. These three steps should come next

By Carl Pope

Contributing Writer

Published August 18, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Wind turbine reflected in solar panels (Getty Images/Tetra Images)
Wind turbine reflected in solar panels (Getty Images/Tetra Images)

With the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Supreme Court's decision to curb but not block EPA action on climate, the architecture of Joe Biden's first-term climate policy is set. The administration can use executive power to limit greenhouse pollution from individual power plants, cars and trucks, oil and gas fields, coal mines and pipelines. These standards will be supplemented with generous tax credits for wind and solar generation, carbon capture, nuclear power and electricity storage. 

That's nothing fancy in legal terms — but it's potentially very ambitious. A wide variety of clean energy innovations and development will receive Department of Energy loans and guarantees. Federal grants will support charging networks for electric cars and retrofitting buildings with efficiency and clean energy. Federal lands will be leased both to clean-energy developers and oil and gas producers — but the standards and royalties paid for fossil fuels will rise, and there will be tougher environmental constraints. The U.S. will continue to be a major exporter of oil and gas, for now, to help Europe back away from Russian fuel. 

That's the blueprint. What remains up for grabs, and is most crucial, is the question of how fast these new structures will be erected. Are we going 24/7 full speed ahead, or falling back on an eight-hour-day energy transition?

That's where a presidential declaration of a national climate emergency could help most. This administration needs to act like there's a climate emergency, whether or not Biden formally declares one. The president needs to tell a broad swath of agencies — EPA and the Department of Energy, but also HUD, the Transportation, Commerce and Interior departments and others — "At least double your pace, and the nation's. Don't walk, run!"

The list of available climate priorities that must be accelerated is staggering. Here's my partial and necessarily incomplete list of three crucial agenda items. Many will require collaborative action by multiple agencies. 

First: Recapture fugitive methane, amounting to more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. That's one-fifth of total U.S. emissions, and doing this is virtually free. 

How? You can't manage what you can't find. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should double its capacity to identify and methane leaks within two years. 

The second part of this is to stop methane leaks on public lands. Collaborating with NOAA and states like California, New Mexico and Colorado, the Interior Department should be able to cut methane emission from public lands by 75% in four years. 

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Next, recover and sell methane from gas wells on private lands. EPA should ban non-emergency flaring and venting, monitor methane leaks from all wells and require properly monitored shutdowns. Estimates suggest it may be possible to recover enough methane from U.S. oil and gas fields, very inexpensively, to cover half the U.S. commitment of gas exports meant to replace Russian supplies in Europe.

Second: Leapfrog over 100 gigawatts of unneeded, polluting gas power plants. Replace coal-burning plants with more solar and wind instead. Eliminating 84% of U.S. power sector greenhouse gas emissions during Biden's first term is possible, and so is using cheap renewables to restart American industry.

Again, urgency requires coordination. We need to shorten the transmission queue. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should Identify and unsnarl the 10 highest-priority long-distance corridors required to unleash wind and solar power. Reducing the transmission waits for renewables should become FERC's highest priority. 

We need zero-emission standards for new gas projects. EPA should require new gas-fired power plants to install 100% carbon capture technology. Fund both renewables and gas with full carbon capture and let communities choose whichever is cheapest — which will almost always be renewables.

Wind and solar require space: Let's invest in Native American country. The Interior Department should facilitate — and the Energy Department should finance — a $10 billion, tribally-owned renewable power grid. Native nations can then leverage their core economic advantages: some of the best solar and wind resources in the nation. Then make this power available for the nation's highest-priority national industrial needs, such as smelting clean aluminum. 

Know which way the wind is blowing: NOAA should achieve the president's 30-gigawatt offshore wind goal in five years, then get to 60 gigawatts in 10 years. This would power 20 million homes and create 150,000 jobs.

Stop importing Russian aluminum; resume smelting it in the U.S. With all this new, low-cost renewable electricity, Interior should guarantee power to restart aluminum smelters until the tribal renewables grid can reliably produce long-term clean energy.

Third: Electrify cars and trucks, and make electric vehicles a cleaner and more reliable option in every zip code. EPA and the Department of Transportation have told automakers to electrify. There are much more generous purchase rebates now. But will the customers come? Biden can still do much more. 

You shouldn't have to worry about recharging on an interstate. The Department of Transportation should accelerate EV charging networks and spend its appropriated $5 billion over three years, not five. Consumers will create demand after that. It's only the first part of building this infrastructure that could slow us down.

It's time to electrify the Pentagon: All civilian vehicles purchased by the Department of Defense should be electrified from now on.

There's a lot more, and I've left out most of it. Homeland Security can invest in low-carbon microgrids in Hurricane Alley along the Gulf Coast. HUD is encouraging towns and cities to streamline rooftop solar permits. The USDA is helping rural electric cooperatives dump expensive and dirty coal for clean and affordable wind and solar. The U.S. Postal Service is moving toward an all-electric fleet of delivery vehicles. 

There's a big difference between a climate plan done with an eight-hour-day rhythm, and a climate emergency, even if the same steps toward decarbonization are implemented. Faster cuts in emission will also lower cumulative emissions, which which will drive positive climate change over time. 

What about the politics of all this? Here are some less obvious aspects of a 24/7 climate-emergency commitment: Creating twice as many jobs, mostly in red states, a healthy share of which will replace fading fossil fuel employment. Federal financing means that the average job will pay more, and provide more security, than jobs on the open market, and the energy these jobs deliver will be much cheaper than sticking with coal, oil and gas.

So this isn't just vital to addressing the climate crisis — it's the key to an extended economic boom that can redeem Joe Biden's presidency.

By Carl Pope

Carl Pope is the co-author of "Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet." He is the former CEO and chairman of the Sierra Club.