The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front contributed reporting.
Marking a shift away from the deregulation agenda of former President Donald Trump, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday pledging the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. The international accord commits nations to carbon-emission reductions that will help limit impacts like droughts, heat waves, and sea-level rise.
Biden’s order is welcomed by cities and states that have had to tackle climate change with little to no federal help over the past four years.
“We look forward to seeing President-elect Biden rejoin the Paris Agreement,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, “and we look forward to collaborating with his administration in scaling up local action to ensure our city and our residents can thrive today and into the future.”
Philadelphia’s director of sustainability, Christine Knapp, said she has already met with Biden’s climate advisers, who she said were eager to learn how local governments are addressing climate change.
“So I’m imagining that we are going to see a number of different technical systems and potentially funding programs that come from the administration that will allow us to move even faster,” said Knapp.
She spoke at an event last week announcing the city’s new target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which lines up with Biden’s goal. But it’s going to be a tough goal to make without support from the federal government, especially since electricity generation still relies primarily on fossil fuels.
“We actually can’t do that in Philadelphia by ourselves,” said Knapp. “The electric grid is not within our control. The state can’t even do that.”
Pennsylvania tops the list for fossil fuel power plants. Gov. Tom Wolf is pushing to have the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would force power plant operators to pay for their carbon emission pollution.
The Paris Climate Agreement includes individual pledges by countries to cut their carbon emissions.
“But those long-term carbon neutrality pledges in some ways are very easy to make and really hard to make real,” said Cara Horowitz, director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. “And so I think we’ll see when the rubber meets the road over the next few years how much countries are committed to making hard choices to help implement those pledges now that the U.S. is back in the game.”
The Trump administration instituted an extraordinary number of rollbacks of environmental regulations over the past four years. A most recent account lists 175 reversals that include everything from light bulb efficiency, to clean car fuel standards, to loosened water pollution controls.
On Trump’s final full day in office, his plan to roll back Obama’s signature climate change program suffered defeat in federal court. Obama’s Clean Power Plan had aimed to shift the power sector away from coal toward renewables. But Trump’s EPA eliminated the program in favor of its own, much weaker “Affordable Clean Energy” rule. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed that plan on Tuesday, saying it did not protect public health as outlined in the Clean Air Act.
The move allows Biden to form his own new plan, which will likely be opposed and challenged by fossil fuel interests. Just over the last several days of his term, Trump rolled back a number of rules aimed at aiding the oil and gas industry, including a measure that would require future furnaces and water heaters to be more efficient.
Horowitz said many of those rollbacks will not survive in the Biden administration.
“I think Trump and his agencies were sloppy when they undertook a lot of these rollbacks,” she said. “Many of them are being challenged or have already been challenged in court. Trump’s agencies have a pretty dismal record in litigation defending these rules.”
Democratic control of the Senate will help, Horowitz said, but rolling back the rollbacks could take time.
Environmentalists battling new fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the region say they want to see Biden put an end to new pipeline construction like the PennEast pipeline, which would carry natural gas from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, and a planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in South Jersey, which would ship LNG from Northeast Pennsylvania to an export terminal in Gloucester County. Both projects have all the necessary federal permits but are being challenged in court.
“We need Joe Biden to demonstrate that he truly is a man that believes in science and believes in honoring the commitment to protect future generations,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum. “And that means reconsidering his stance on fracking and truly going all-in on clean and renewable energy pathways from this point forward.”
The Delaware Riverkeeper is among several groups challenging the Army Corps of Engineers permits for the LNG export terminal. The group is also in federal court over the PennEast pipeline. One thing that worries van Rossum going forward is Trump’s conservative court appointees.
“So much of environmental protection depends on the ability of people to go into court and get a fair hearing about the facts and the science and the impacts and the laws,” she said. “Even when we have a good administration in office, government agencies get it wrong. And to have a court system, a fair court system that really is focused on properly interpreting and applying the law, is particularly essential in the environmental protection context.”
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.