This is the first article in a blog series from Resources for the Future (RFF), released weekly in the lead-up to Inauguration Day. In this series, RFF scholars will weigh in on key challenges facing the new administration and explore the outlook for climate policy in the coming years.
The Biden administration is poised to boost clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reversing the outgoing administration’s focus on rolling back environmental regulations. Unless the Democrats take control of the Senate, administrative actions under the Clean Air Act likely will be a priority for the elected president. Indeed, the Biden-Harris platform is full of actions associated with the Clean Air Act that the new administration plans to take in the first 100 days and beyond. Here, I review how some of these plans relate to the first two titles of the Clean Air Act.
First is about what's missing. Probably the most costly, beneficial, and influential environmental standards ever set are the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter and ozone. Yet, you will find no specific mention of these or any of the other conventional (Title I) pollutants (or even the toxic pollutants) in the Biden-Harris platform. This is all the more surprising because the Trump administration had big plans for the Clean Air Act, after reconstituting the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) in its image and then either relaxing the standards or keeping them the same. Indeed, the administration just released its rule leaving the PM2.5 standard unchanged and has signaled that it intends to finalize an unchanged ozone standard before January 20. These actions will create much work for the Biden administration, as the rules will need to be reopened if the administration feels that key evidence was overlooked or disregarded. And in any event, CASAC will be reshaped in short order around a mandate to follow the science (which could ultimately mean a tightening of both of these air standards).
Much more in the news is Title II of the Clean Air Act: the requirements to set fuel economy standards for automobiles and trucks. The Trump administration loosened standards that were made more stringent under the Obama administration, and the Trump administration rescinded the California waiver, which gives California the ability to set (and other states the ability to adopt) more stringent fuel economy standards than those set by the federal government. I would expect the new administration to reaffirm the Obama-era standards and return to working cooperatively with California and its partner states. Indeed, the standards could be further tightened beyond 2025, the original endpoint year for the Obama-era rule.
Already, the change in federal leadership has influenced corporate stances on fuel economy standards. General Motors just announced that it will no longer support the Trump administration’s stance in a lawsuit brought by California against the waiver revocation. General Motors also announced a very aggressive electric vehicle plan that aligns with the goals of the new administration. These corporate shifts reflect that, ultimately, one single federal standard could render the California waiver functionally moot, as it was during the Obama administration.
The most important of the rules passed by the Obama administration to signal its commitment to greenhouse gas reductions was the Clean Power Plan. But that rule (developed under Title I) was immediately subject to lawsuits and was basically eliminated by the Trump administration. Nevertheless, the power sector has led the country in its reductions of CO₂, primarily from the market-driven replacement of coal-fired generation with natural gas and renewable energy resources. Under a Biden administration, these trends surely will continue. But this energy transition can only go so far without regulations or major energy innovations.
In spite of calls from environmentalists to keep cheap natural gas in the ground, the Biden-Harris platform advocates a more moderate stance, suggesting that the new administration (wisely) believes that it cannot eliminate fossil fuel–based electricity by 2050. Rather, the platform recommends speeding the deployment of carbon capture, sequestration, and storage technologies applied to power plants; eliminating subsidies to fossil energy (don't hold your breath on this one); tightening appliance and building efficiency standards (which reduces gas and electricity demand); pushing for greener industrial products through government procurement stipulations; and creating an aggressive R&D program for fuel innovation, including for hydrogen, modular nuclear energy, and biofuels.
Most of these initiatives can be done administratively, so only limited (mostly budgetary) legislative support will be needed. Given the success of the Title IV SO₂ Trading Program in obtaining large, low-cost reductions in power plant SO₂ emissions, the analogous Clean Energy Standard may be one of the most important climate-related bills to be considered by the new Congress. But even without Democratic control of the Senate over the coming years, the Biden administration can do much to move the United States toward a low-carbon future.