President Biden signed executive orders on Wednesday that require the government to prioritize climate change and “environmental justice” in all federal decisions, and suspended new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, moves that critics say are costing thousands of jobs already in the energy field.
Mr. Biden said the actions will begin to ease the impact of wildfires, floods, droughts and tropical storms, all of which he said are worsened by climate change.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Mr. Biden said at the White House. “We see it with our own eyes, we feel it. We know it in our bones. It is an existential threat. There is a climate crisis. We know what to do, we’ve just got to do it.”
Among the goals of his order is to create a carbon-free electric sector by 2035.
The president also signed an executive action calling on government agencies to protect scientists from “political interference.”
While the fossil-fuel industry will be hard hit by his actions, Mr. Biden said he won’t eliminate natural-gas “fracking” where it already exists.
“Let me be clear, I know this always comes up — we’re not going to ban fracking,” the president said.
He said climate change “will be the center of our national security and foreign policy.”
Republicans said the Biden administration had begun its “war on energy” at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is already hurting the U.S. economy. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said Mr. Biden will drive up the cost of energy in the U.S. and force American jobs to move overseas.
“I’m all for transitioning to cleaner forms of energy, but we have to deal with the reality of, for example, the fact that there are 280 million cars with internal combustion engines on our roads,” Mr. Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “How are families going to get to work, take their kids to school, or live their life if all of a sudden the very natural resource that they depend on for their cars is no longer available?”
Special climate envoy John F. Kerry said Mr. Biden’s actions are urgently needed to make up for what he called the damaging policies of former President Trump, who advanced U.S. oil and gas production to a position of global dominance.
Clearly referring to Mr. Trump, Mr. Kerry said the Biden administration’s moves on climate and clean energy will be so broad and coordinated with foreign capitals that “no one political person in the future would be able to undo what the planet is going to be organizing over these next months and years.”
“This is the start of something new,” Mr. Kerry said at the White House. “This is an issue where failure literally is not an option. 2021 is going to be the year that really makes up for the lost time of the last four years.”
Mr. Kerry and presidential climate adviser Gina McCarthy repeatedly asserted that a faster move to production of clean energy and away from fossil fuels will create “good-paying union jobs.” Mr. Kerry said workers during the Trump administration were “fed a false narrative … that somehow dealing with climate is coming at their expense. No, it’s not.”
“Quality of life will be better when Gina has put her team together that produces choices for us that are healthier, less cancer, cleaner air,” Mr. Kerry said.
Republicans slammed the administration’s agenda.
“The Biden administration signals with these executive orders that America is heading backwards from energy independence toward reliance on foreign sources,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican and a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “This is an economic, energy, and national security disaster rolled into one. While depriving communities of much-needed revenue and job opportunities during a pandemic, the administration’s moratorium is another step closer towards what we know is Gina McCarthy and John Kerry’s ultimate goal: an all-out ban on fossil fuels.”
Environmental groups hailed the president’s moves.
“We won’t slow the progress of the climate crisis until we address the racism of the systems that allow low-income communities and communities of color to be targeted as dumping grounds for pollution,” said Ramon Cruz, an official with the Sierra Club. “These executive orders from President Biden will begin to repair some of the harm done by our extractive economy, and ensure that communities impacted by pollution have a voice in the process of repairing that harm.”
Mr. Kerry conceded that U.S. actions alone to reduce harmful emissions won’t affect climate change unless the U.S. convinces nations such as China and India to follow suit. He said China is responsible for about 30 % of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the U.S. accounts for less than half that.
“We could go to zero tomorrow, and the problem isn’t solved,” Mr. Kerry said.
The president’s moves are adding more layers of federal bureaucracy, creating an interagency White House task force to review climate policy, as well as a new advisory council.
The White House said Mr. Biden‘s order “clearly establishes climate considerations as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security.”
White House officials said the new policies will build on Mr. Biden’s earlier actions such as canceling the Keystone XL pipeline project and rejoining the Paris climate agreement, reversals of policies of Mr. Trump.
The order directs the Secretary of the Interior to halt any new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore, launch a “rigorous review” of existing fossil-fuel production leases and permits, and will set a goal of doubling renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030.
The administration also reportedly plans to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to redirect up to $10 billion in emergency COVID-19 money for climate-change projects.
Former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said the plan is proof of “the radical left coming forward with their priorities.”
“Whether it’s our border policy or any of the other executive orders that he’s putting forth, it’s going to have a real chilling effect on jobs,” he said on “Fox & Friends.”
Mr. Meadows questioned in particular the redirecting of COVID-19 aid.
“It’s a real head-scratcher when you start to look at FEMA’s critical role in making sure that vaccines get to the American people,” Mr. Meadows said on Wednesday. “They’ve played a very pivotal role in making sure that those get distributed in an equitable way. And yet, we’re going to reallocate $10 billion to climate change?”
He said most Americans don’t consider climate change as “their number-one priority.”
“They probably looked at it as the virus. We need to keep the priority where it is,” Mr. Meadows said.