President Biden delivered his first address to Congress last night, pledging that his $2.2 trillion bid to overhaul the nation’s transportation and energy sectors is a way to tackle the climate crisis and create jobs, casting it as the "blue-collar blueprint to build America."
The speech — coming on the eve of Biden’s 100th day in office — marks the start of an ambitious chapter as Biden seeks to refashion the energy industry to provide 100% clean electricity by 2035. But he faces a steep climb, given nearly unanimous Republican opposition and only a narrow Democratic Senate majority.
"America is on the move again," Biden said before a smaller-than-usual audience at the Capitol, due to pandemic restrictions. "Turning peril into possibility, crisis into opportunity, setbacks into strength."
Biden used the hour-plus speech to detail his call for a $1 trillion investment in children, families and higher education. But he first sought to rally support for the $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan he unveiled last month, saying his call for investments in green energy will create jobs.
"For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: jobs," Biden said.
His plan, he said, would "put engineers and construction workers to work building more energy-efficient buildings and homes."
Electrical workers, he said, would be recruited to install 500,000 charging stations so that the U.S. "can own the electric car market."
And he added, "There’s simply no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing."
The White House earlier this week announced plans to speed up expansion of the nation’s high-voltage power grids, and Biden said the Texas cold snap — which knocked out power to millions of residents in February — shows the grid is vulnerable to storms, hacks and other failures.
His plan, he added, would "create jobs to lay thousands of miles of transmission lines needed to build a resilient and fully clean grid."
The administration has faced criticism that its emphasis on green energy could cause job upheaval, particularly in the fossil fuel industry — which Biden did not mention.
But he used his remarks to appeal directly to skeptics, including those in communities that are expected to be hardest hit by the shift away from coal, oil and natural gas.
"I know some of you at home wonder whether these jobs are for you," Biden said. "So many of you, so many of the folks I grew up with, feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing."
But he said independent experts have assessed his infrastructure plan would add millions of jobs and boost economic growth.
"These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced," he said, adding that nearly 90% of the infrastructure positions don’t require a college degree and 75% don’t require an associate degree.
"The Americans Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America," he said. "And it recognizes something I’ve always said: Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class."
The speech comes as the administration looks to close a wage gap that looms between the jobs in the oil and gas sector and the clean energy workforce envisioned by Biden’s infrastructure proposal.
The United Mine Workers of America last week expressed skepticism about Biden’s plan, with President Cecil Roberts saying the jobs aren’t yet union jobs and "don’t pay but a fraction of what a coal miner makes."
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who delivered the Republican response, called Biden’s infrastructure plan a "partisan wish list" and charged that it would lower wages.
Biden and members of his Cabinet — who mostly did not attend the speech because of pandemic restrictions — plan to travel in the next few weeks to sell the plans to the American public.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will travel to the Appalachian region in several weeks, her senior adviser Karen Skelton earlier in the day told an Atlantic Council panel.
Granholm and other officials working on the effort to aid the coal region "are going to be hitting the road and sitting down in communities and talking to people who have been working on these issues for many, many years," Skelton said.
A task force last week recommended that the administration within three months organize town hall meetings to hear directly from affected energy communities.
"I don’t want to suggest that the president or the secretary … think that there’s an easy answer here, this is a very challenging set of circumstances," Skelton said, adding that the administration believes, however, there will be job opportunities in carbon capture projects and turning coal into new products.
"This working group is very hopeful that the jobs plan will pass and that the resources will be multiplied and able to be deployed into places like West Virginia and other Appalachian communities and everywhere across the country that’s going to face this kind of transition," she said.
The attention to coal communities has raised hopes from some corners that this administration could get serious about addressing economic decline in places historically dependent on coal.
"These early steps are unprecedented," Tom Cormons, executive director of Appalachian Voices, said of the administration’s pledge to work with local experts and create a "one-stop-shop" for coal communities to access federal resources.
Even actions like Granholm’s visit could resonate in the energy-rich region, he said.
"Folks won’t miss that," he said.
Oil and gas jockeying
Major oil and gas trade groups sought to position themselves as potential partners to the administration in reaching climate goals by driving down greenhouse gas pollution, pointing to emissions reductions that have occurred as natural gas has made up more of the U.S. electricity mix in recent years.
Amy Andryszak, president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said gas infrastructure will be "integral" to reaching Biden’s carbon-cutting goals.
"President Biden linked jobs and climate change during his address this evening — two areas of great importance to INGAA and its members," she said in a statement last night. "Natural gas infrastructure not only provides reliable energy to homes and businesses across our country, but also provides well-paying employment opportunities to thousands of Americans."
The share of natural gas in the electricity generation mix is projected to hover "at about one-third from 2020 to 2050," according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s recent annual energy outlook, while coal’s share is forecasted to decline from 19% last year to 11% in 2050.
"Over the last several years, the U.S. has already reduced emissions more than any other country in the Paris Agreement, due in large part to the increased use of natural gas and our industry’s commitment to innovation and technology," said Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration & Production Council, in a statement issued ahead of Biden’s address.
And the American Petroleum Institute yesterday called for Biden to find a "reasonable middle ground."
"We don’t have to choose between environmental progress and energy security," CEO Mike Sommers said in a statement. "Instead of harmful mandates, new taxes and misguided restrictions on our nation’s vast energy resources, Congress and the administration should focus on accelerating innovation and reducing emissions through market-based solutions."
But the calls for collaboration come as the administration’s relationship with much of the oil and gas industry is fraught, following the White House’s swift decision in January to cancel a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, paired with a pause on the sale of new federal oil and gas leases.
"Anything energy related we hear from [Biden] we hope will move beyond vague generalities and provide specifics to the oil and gas workers his proposals are threatening with a loss of jobs or lower pay and benefits," John Stoody, vice president of government and public relations at the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, said in an email.
Biden’s oil and gas leasing pause has fueled anger from lawmakers in states like Louisiana, Montana, Wyoming and Texas.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said the administration was guilty of framing all its policies around climate, offering "platitudes that gloss over the real issues."
Analysts at ClearView Energy Partners say industry’s distrust may be well founded.
The group said it is increasingly confident that Interior will clamp down on permit renewals — extensions of a right to drill a well that have been granted routinely under past administrations.
Biden’s initial moves have encouraged some environmental groups, but many have called for more.
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, said there’s "much work to be done" when it comes to cutting methane emissions, plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, and helping states that are dependent on federal oil and gas to diversify their revenue streams.
He said Biden’s "relentless emphasis that climate action means jobs" highlights the reality that "climate action cannot be segregated from action to spark our economy and create the conditions for a thriving, climate resilient future."
Several groups opposed to the Line 3 oil pipeline expansion, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wis., held a conference call ahead of the speech calling on the administration to scrap a cross-border permit for the project.
"It would be a striking act of leadership for them to say we’re not going to keep building these pipelines that were clearly the product of an earlier era," said Bill McKibben, founder and senior adviser emeritus of 350.org.
Progressive House and Senate Democrats are set to push Biden to go even further today, formally introducing a bill that would allocate $1 trillion annually for a decade to cut climate pollution in half by 2030. The funding is also aimed at "confronting systemic racism and gender, economic, and environmental injustice," according to a fact sheet on the measure.
Biden said his infrastructure plan calls for the biggest increase in nondefense research and development on record.
"China and other countries are closing in fast," he said, adding, "We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future: advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips and clean energy."
Biden’s R&D push could include support for the nascent U.S. offshore wind sector: The White House has set a goal to achieve 30 gigawatts of offshore electricity by 2030.
"President Biden has placed renewable energy development at the center of his domestic agenda to create good-paying jobs, revitalize manufacturing and combat climate change, and it’s clear that offshore wind is a cornerstone of that effort," said Sam Salustro, director of coalitions and strategic partnerships at the Business Network for Offshore Wind, which represents the supply chain for the industry.
"Now comes the hard work," Salustro said in an email.
For solar power, advocates say they have been encouraged by the Biden administration’s action on many of their early asks. White House proposals have called for expanding long-term tax incentives, ramping up R&D spending and building out the high-voltage power lines that would unbottle solar from the sunniest areas, among other steps.
Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said that Biden had pushed "foundational" solar policies in his infrastructure plans — but they still need to be translated into legislation.
"Going forward, we’re really interested in the specifics," she said. "We’re very supportive of the broader outlines of what he’s proposed, but the specifics really matter."
Meanwhile, a separate, darker policy issue hangs over the solar industry’s future.
Biden administration officials and both parties in Congress have accused China of carrying out a campaign of genocide against the Uyghur ethnic group in the province of Xinjiang. And an Atlanta-based consultancy has alleged that some of the U.S. solar industry’s largest suppliers of polysilicon — a key precursor material for solar cells — are making use of forced labor in the region.
SEIA has called on its members to abandon the region, although companies will first have to check if their products use Xinjiang polysilicon (Energywire, April 15).
In his speech last night, Biden said he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. would not "back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Hours before the speech, SEIA released new protocols for companies to demonstrate where their solar products are made. The document does not mention Xinjiang or China.
The trade group praised Biden after the speech for providing "a unifying path forward" on addressing climate change.
"We know that solar energy plus storage must play a central role in achieving the president’s aspirations for reducing emissions from the power sector," said Hopper.
Biden has also pledged to do more with energy-efficiency measures to curb climate change.
Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said yesterday that "the question now is if they will push for the level of ambition that’s needed."
He said he’d like to see the White House work with Congress to retrofit 20 million low-, moderate- and middle-income houses and apartments over a decade.
"They’re making a lot of encouraging pledges, but we need to see them fully embrace the ambition of the moment," Nadel said.
Biden’s bid to convince Congress to enact his infrastructure plan will remain an administration priority. Though he could take some steps without Congress to reach his climate goals.
"Acting without new legislation would require a whole reconfiguring of a lot of what many of these departments already do," Energy Secretary Granholm said this week in a virtual interview with POLITICO.
Biden will host his first meeting with the Democratic and Republican leaders of each chamber on May 12 at the White House, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki announced yesterday.
Reporters Heather Richards, Carlos Anchondo, Kristi Swartz and David Iaconangelo contributed.