The Energy 202: Biden’s climate agenda has a better chance with Democratic Senate control

But that paper-thin majority limits the possibility of granting sweeping new regulatory power to agencies to curb emissions. 

Democrats will be able to bring climate legislation to the floor for the first time since losing control in 2014.

“Mitch McConnell has basically single-handedly made sure that no serious climate bill comes to the floor,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told The Energy 202. “Opening that doorway is incredibly important.”

Biden’s climate plan includes new mandates on electric utilities to slash their carbon emissions to zero by 2035. And the incoming majority leader, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), wants amped-up subsidies for electric-car buyers.

But Democrats tried — and failed — to pass a major climate bill the last time they fully controlled Congress. 

During President Barack Obama’s first year in office, a sweeping cap-and-trade bill was approved the House only to die in the Senate.

Passing ambitious legislation will be made all the harder by Senate’s filibuster, effectively requiring 60 votes to pass a bill. Climate activists have pushed for Democrats to scrap the rule, but Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) recently foreclosed the possibility of getting rid of it.

More likely than a stand-alone climate bill, according to Liam Donovan, an energy lobbyist at Bracewell, is Democrats embedding green measures into any stimulus or infrastructure packages they pass.

“Republicans have 20 people in cycle in 2022, some of them in competitive states,” he said. “So I think you can dial up the political pressure by putting reasonable sounding things that you want to do, infrastructure included,” on the floor.

But Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, told our colleagues Biden’s plan ambitions are popular enough to push through.

“The beauty of the Build Back Better plan,” he said, is that Biden has advocated for 40 percent of the funding to go to disadvantaged communities and areas likely to lose jobs in a clean energy transition, such as West Virginia and states in the Rust Belt.

“There’s no reason for the Biden administration to scale back an ambitious plan. It makes sense and it’s wildly popular,” he said.

There is still a lot that Democrats can get done with just 50 votes.

A procedure called reconciliation allows the Senate to pass tax and spending measures with a simple majority. Much of the federal support for solar, wind and other cleaner forms of energy comes as tax breaks.

“You can do a heck of a lot through the tax code,” Donovan said. “That’s the most obvious thing, from a legislative standpoint, they can get done.” 

Whitehouse, one of the most vocal environmental advocates in the Senate, was even optimistic about cutting a price on carbon emissions — a long-sought goal of many environmentalists and economists — through reconciliation.

“I do think that a carbon price and reconciliation are going to be important features either to gain leverage or to actually pass legislation,” he said.

Lawmakers also can use a law called the Congressional Review Act to strike down regulatory rollbacks recently completed by President Trump’s outgoing administration with simple majorities in both the House and Senate. A new rule that limits the research that Environmental Protection Agency officials can use when writing anti-pollution rules may be a target.

And crucially, having 50 votes will let Biden staff up key environmental positions more quickly, letting the Senate move on to other matters without being bogged down by the nomination process. 

Power plays

Trump’s environmental chiefs acknowledge his defeat and condemn violence.

After a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the final count of electoral votes, the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Energy and Interior departments, condemned the violence and acknowledged Trump’s electoral defeat.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that he was “disgusted” by the breach of the Capitol, but his statement stopped short of criticizing Trump, who had encouraged his supporters on Wednesday to head toward the Capitol, the Washington Examiner reports. 

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette also condemned the mob at the Capitol Building, calling it “tragic,” but did not criticize the president. Brouillette tweeted that he was glad Trump had endorsed a transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden.

And on the day of the attack, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said “violence and lawlessness at the U.S. Capitol cannot and will not be tolerated.”

None of them have resigned so far. Several Trump officials, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have resigned since the riot, with some accusing the president of fomenting it through false claims that he had won the November election. Although Trump said he will support an “orderly” transition of power, he continued to stoke doubts about the election on Thursday.

Wheeler will also travel to Costa Rica during his last days in office.

The trip less than two weeks before the end of the Trump administration to discuss litter that affects waters and oceans. Wheeler canceled another planned trip to Taiwan after the New York Times reported that his chartered flight for that trip would cost $250,000. The EPA has not said how much the trip to Costa Rica will cost, Roll Call reports, but some critics have questioned the value of travel in the final days of the administration, especially because the pandemic can make trips both riskier and more expensive.

Elon Musk becomes the world’s richest person.

A nearly 8 percent stock rally by Tesla probably makes Musk, the electric car makers chief executive, the richest person in the world. The Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index estimated his net worth at $195 billion, $10 billion more than Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (Bezos owns The Post.) 

“It marks an unlikely turnaround for Musk. Just 18 months ago, Tesla’s stock appeared to have bottomed out on the heels of legal and regulatory fears, as well as concerns about Musk’s leadership,” The Post’s Faiz Siddiqui reports. “But last year, the stock rose steadily — then meteorically — as the company posted consecutive quarters of profits and appeared to prove the viability and demand for electric cars.”


Drought is the sleeper story you’ll hear more about in 2021.

Nearly half of the Lower 48 states were in moderate to exceptional drought conditions at the end of 2020, and forecasts of a continuing El Ninã weather pattern suggest that dry conditions will continue next year. 

“Drought is an insidious climate threat — by the time it has a hold of a region, impacts on ecosystems and water supplies can be locked in,” our colleagues Andrew Freedman and Hannah Dormido report. “On Wall Street, traders can now bet on California water futures on commodity markets, enabling them to hedge against future scarcity, much as they trade gold, oil and agricultural products.”

“While droughts come and go, there is increasing evidence that parts of the U.S., namely the Southwest, are enduring long-term ‘megadrought’ conditions seen in historical tree ring records. This is partly related to climate change, which worsens droughts by increasing temperatures, thereby turbocharging the loss of moisture from plants and soils,” they write.

Radar technology to predict hurricanes hits a major setback.

The National Science Foundation rejected a proposal to implement a breakthrough radar technology that could advance hurricane forecasting, our colleague Jason Samenow reports. The decision comes as climate change makes hurricanes more likely to rapidly intensify and harder to predict.

The NSF said that it had turned down the funding proposal from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to build the new radar over questions related to the costs. The federally funded atmospheric research institute may resubmit the project, but the rejection could constitute a significant setback to efforts to modernize the government’s aging hurricane fleet with the new technology.

Costs from natural disasters doubled in 2020.

New figures reported by insurer Munich Re find that hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters caused $95 billion in damage in 2020, almost double the cost of disasters in 2019.

“Those losses occurred during a year that was one of the warmest on record, a trend that makes extreme rainfall, wildfires, droughts and other environmental catastrophes more frequent and intense,” the New York Times reports. 

The past year saw a record hurricane season, as well as the largest wildfires ever recorded in California. Ernst Rauch, the chief climate scientist at Munich Re, said that climate change and continued building in high-risk areas contributed to the losses. 

Extra mileage

Bald eagles have made a comeback in New Jersey.

Researchers found nesting pairs of bald eagles were in all of the state’s 21 counties for the first time in 40 years of monitoring, according to a report released by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

“The report is in line with a well-established trend of recovery in the bald eagle population nationally, which was critically endangered in the 1970s and 1980s because of habitat destruction and the widespread use of DDT,” the Associated Press writes.