It’s officially an election year, which means politics — and the prospect of another White House showdown pitting President Joe Biden against former President Donald Trump — will influence just about everything in the energy and environmental arena between now and Election Day on Nov. 5.
(That’s 308 days from Jan. 2, but who’s counting?)
Until then, the Biden administration will continue to try to sell voters on the president’s climate and environmental work so far and make the case that the president will do much more on that front over a second term.
But in case Biden loses, the administration will also be hustling to finalize big environmental rules on the early side of this year in the hopes that they won’t meet the same fate as some Obama-era rules that were swept away when Trump entered office.
Green groups and Democrats will be making the case that Trump was a disaster on the environment and shouldn’t be allowed to step foot back in the White House, while the GOP and some industry groups will step up their attacks on Biden’s climate agenda, arguing that it hurts domestic energy production and makes the United States vulnerable to the whims of other countries.
Big legislation on energy and permitting isn’t likely in a divided Congress during an election year, but insiders caution that surprises are always possible. And major cases pending in the courts this year could dramatically change the landscape on climate and the environment.
This year is “a political year,” said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell. “The first half is the only time when you can get anything substantive done before — as [former House Energy and Commerce Chair] John Dingell always used to say — ‘The silly season kicks in.’”
The Biden team, including Cabinet secretaries, White House officials and the president himself, spent much of 2023 traveling across the country to sell the public on their climate and energy policies. The administration scored a big win in 2022 with the passage of the sweeping climate and energy law dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, but polling has shown the law hasn’t gotten the public adoration the White House likely hoped for.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre touted the administration’s climate work so far during a December news conference and told reporters, “President Biden and Vice President Harris will continue building on this progress that we’ve made the first two years in the years ahead.”
Biden’s record on climate and energy — and Republican candidates’ attacks on those policies — are sure to be themes during the GOP primary and the general election.
“I think you’ll hear a lot about it,” Maisano said. “It won’t be super substantive; it won’t be their first thing, especially if gas prices stay low, which I expect that they will.”
‘So much at stake’
Major environmental groups are gearing up to play defense for Biden and to escalate their warnings about the prospect of a Trump return to the White House.
“The consequences of this election coming up next year can’t be understated,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
“There’s so much at stake,” he added. “The amazing progress we’ve made in the last three years under the Biden administration is all at risk as we know, and we need to be all in to make sure that those in charge of the Senate and the White House stay in charge and [that] we also have a different leadership in the House.”
Don’t expect every environmental activist to get behind the Biden administration. The youth-led group Climate Defiance, for example, has been protesting senior Biden administration officials to urge them to do more to slash emissions.
On the regulatory front, the administration plans to roll out rules spanning from public lands management to endangered species policies and climate change.
“Their work in the regulatory arena to set standards is critically important,” said Karpinski.
Big-ticket items include highly anticipated climate rules for power plants and vehicles. Regulatory experts and environmental advocates want to see those rules finalized as soon as possible to avoid falling prey to the Congressional Review Act, which Trump and a GOP-led Congress used to wipe out Obama-era rules in 2017.
Chevron ‘storm cloud looming’
A potentially huge Supreme Court decision could also imperil Biden’s regulatory plans.
This year “might be the beginning of the end of energy and environmental regulations as we know it,” said James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform.
The Supreme Court could soon torpedo the Chevron doctrine that has long given federal agencies leeway to interpret laws and helped defend environmental rules against legal challenges.
“If the Supreme Court hands down a decision repealing Chevron, that makes it hard to do anything with these old statutes,” Goodwin said. That’s a “storm cloud looming out there,” he added.
Also on the legal front, experts will be closely watching what happens in cases that attempt to hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for emissions, particularly in the wake of a Montana judge’s ruling in 2023 that state lawmakers had violated young people’s constitutional rights by ignoring the planet-warming effects of fossil fuel projects.
More gridlock is likely on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have struggled to work together even on basic tasks like funding the government. That dynamic is unlikely to improve during a hot-button election year and experts don’t expect major energy or environment legislation, even as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle clamor to streamline the clunky process for getting energy projects permitted.
When it comes to getting legislation, “election years are hard,” said Christine Tezak, a veteran energy analyst at ClearView Energy Partners.
But events could prod lawmakers into action, she added, pointing to unanticipated events in recent years that include the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“You can never rule out the possibility that there’ll be some kind of catalyst that drives what we’ve referred to as a congressional stampede to enact legislation,” she said. “The status quo, it doesn’t look good, but you never know.”