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What it would mean for Biden to declare a national climate emergency

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In the wake of Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement that he won’t vote for a bill addressing climate change unless inflation slows next month, climate leaders are calling for President Biden to declare climate change a national emergency — and it appears that the White House is seriously considering the move.

A formal declaration would open up new possibilities for unilateral action by the executive branch to combat climate change, including halting U.S. exports of crude oil and halting offshore drilling. Biden could even redirect military funding to the construction of renewable energy projects — much as former President Donald Trump diverted more than $18 billion in Pentagon funding to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico — and impose trade penalties on countries that permit deforestation, such as the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

President Joe Biden, with UN Climate Conference projected behind him, at a podium marked Glasgow.
President Biden speaks at the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. (Evan Vucci/Pool via AP)

But such a creative use of the relevant federal law would also undoubtedly trigger lawsuits from fossil fuel companies and Republicans.

On Monday evening, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., held a press conference to ask Biden to explore a range of actions to reduce climate pollution. Many of these, such as using the Defense Production Act to build up domestic clean energy manufacturing capacity, are extensions and expansions of moves Biden has already begun to make.

“There is probably nothing more important for our nation and for our world than for the United States to drive a bold, energetic transition in its energy economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy,” Merkley said.

Amid record-breaking heat waves in the Western U.S. and in Europe, Merkley argued that climate change is no longer a future threat but an already unfolding disaster.

“My state is in crisis,” he said. “We have massive droughts that are destroying our farmers. It’s affecting our forests. We have the red zone where the pine beetles are killing the pine trees. We have the forest fires … and we have a huge impact on our fishing, both in our streams and offshore.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley at the microphone.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. (Bonnie Cash/UPI via AP)

The most dramatic option that Merkley wants Biden to take is to declare a national emergency on climate. Later that evening, the Washington Post reported that the White House is indeed considering doing so.

“The president made clear that if the Senate doesn’t act to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, he will,” a White House official said in a statement. “We are considering all options, and no decision has been made.”

Speculation that the president would soon declare a climate emergency increased when it was announced that he will visit the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Mass., on Wednesday to give a speech about climate change. Brayton Point is currently shuttered while it transitions from burning coal to generating wind power.

Rhetorically, Biden has previously called climate change an “emergency,” but he has stopped short of making an official declaration under the National Emergencies Act.

U.S. presidents have declared 60 national emergencies since 1976, according to the think tank Demos. Historically, those have typically been for acute crises, such as specific natural disasters, rather than a long-term predicament like climate change.

The two towers soon after the demolition, surrounded by smoke.
The cooling towers at the former Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., crumbled during a controlled implosion on April 27, 2019. (Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In an era of increased partisan polarization and congressional gridlock, however, pushing the boundaries of executive action is becoming more common. Trump, for instance, declared illegal migration across the southern border a national emergency so he could use funds that Congress appropriated for the military to build a border wall, a move the Supreme Court upheld in 2019.

In theory, such a precedent would bode well for a climate emergency declaration, but one cannot assume too much consistency from a court that has also become more partisan and seen fit to limit the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act.

The Associated Press reported that on Wednesday, Biden “will stop short of issuing an emergency declaration that would unlock federal resources to deal with the issue,” according to a person familiar with the president's plans. Sources acquainted with the White House’s thinking also told Yahoo News that though a climate emergency declaration is under serious consideration, it will not be coming this week. Instead, the president will reportedly announce some new executive orders on climate change during his Massachusetts speech. "Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see a climate emergency tomorrow," one source told Reuters.

Biden has already signaled his intent to pursue an array of executive actions, such as stricter new rules limiting various pollutants. Until now, the White House has moved cautiously on executive actions on climate change, as it tried to get its proposal to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidizing the adoption of electric vehicles and clean energy sources such as solar panels, formerly known as Build Back Better, through an evenly split Senate with unified Republican opposition. Absent Manchin’s support for that package, experts say, it will be virtually impossible for the United States to fulfill Biden’s pledge to reduce emissions by half this decade.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is met by reporters outside the hearing room where he chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is met by reporters outside the hearing room where he chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” Biden said in a statement released Friday evening.

Some environmental advocacy organizations have been urging Biden to declare climate change a national emergency ever since he won the presidency.

“If he declares a national emergency, it triggers the ability for him to deploy around 130 different powers,” Jean Su, energy justice program director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “One of the most useful for climate is the reinstatement of the crude oil export ban.” Stopping the export of crude oil would reduce emissions by the equivalent of shutting 42 coal plants, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s calculations, because it would reduce domestic oil production.

“Shutting that off would actually reduce the incentive for companies from fracking in the Permian Basin” in Texas and New Mexico, Su said. With an emergency declaration, Biden could even phase out all exports and imports of fossil fuels entirely, she said.

Similarly, while the president already has the authority to stop selling new leases for offshore drilling, an emergency declaration would allow him to go further and stop issuing permits for offshore oil and gas wells under already existing leases and halt all drilling immediately. Whether he would do so is a different matter: He pledged on the campaign trail to end new fossil fuel leasing, but — feeling political pressure to look as if he’s pursuing every possible approach to lowering gasoline prices — the administration is currently considering selling new oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico and in Cook Inlet in Alaska.

An oil and gas drilling platform stands offshore near Dauphin Island, Alabama
An oil and gas drilling platform stands offshore near Dauphin Island, Alabama, October 5, 2013. (Steve Nesius/Reuters)

Su also argues that an emergency declaration would allow the White House to do more under the Defense Production Act (DPA) than it would under that law alone, such as marshaling funding under the DPA to deploy clean energy — for example, rooftop solar installations on low-income housing.

There are some in the climate advocacy community who think such a move would have limited ability to alter the U.S.’s emissions trajectory, which can be dramatically moved only if Congress passes new laws with broad new regulatory powers, fees for carbon emissions or spending to deploy renewables and electric vehicles, as Build Back Better would have.

“While a climate declaration is important in terms of media attention and galvanizing the climate movement, it does not have significant impacts on carbon pollution,” said one climate expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting colleagues. “It is a symbolic act more than a substantive one.”

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