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White House forced to defend Biden’s climate agenda after setbacks

Senior US officials will this week be forced to defend Joe Biden’s record on combating climate change after a string of setbacks has thwarted the president’s sweeping agenda.

On Monday, a US official told reporters: “The press and the pundits may like to declare President Biden’s climate agenda dead, but this week we will show how it is very much alive and well.”

The official said the administration planned to use the week leading up to Friday’s Earth Day, which marks the birth of the modern environmental movement, to provide “updates” on the progress it is making in tackling climate change.

Biden will travel to Seattle on Friday to tout his efforts to increase clean energy across the US.

The renewed focus on climate policy comes as the administration has come under fire from environmentalists for failing to deliver on election promises, with flagship climate pledges stalled in Congress even as the window to pass legislation narrows ahead of November’s midterm elections. Legal challenges are, meanwhile, threatening to curtail key regulatory proposals.

Reuters and The New York Times have reported that Gina McCarthy, Biden’s top climate adviser, plans to resign in the coming months after telling confidantes that she is frustrated by the slow pace of climate progress. The White House said there were “no such plans under way”.

Spiralling oil and gas prices prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have presented further roadblocks to Biden’s agenda, forcing him to weigh slashing fuel taxes, release 180mn barrels of oil from the US emergency stockpile, and plead with US oil producers to boost production.

On Monday, senior administration officials insisted that the US was still on track to meet Biden’s aim of reducing US carbon emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2030.

But there have been other significant setbacks, notably the administration’s failure to secure Senate confirmation for Sarah Bloom Raskin, who was blocked as vice-chair of the Federal Reserve after conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin took issue with her calls for regulators to more proactively address climate-related financial risks.

Two legal cases have also challenged Biden’s climate efforts. The Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, is hearing a case that could limit the ability of Biden’s environmental regulator to reduce pollution.

Separately, one of Biden’s earliest acts in office — a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal land — was reversed after a federal court ruling last summer ordered the administration to restart the leasing programme. About 144,000 acres of public land will now be put up for sale, the interior department said on Friday.

The US energy regulator, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, also recently pulled back on plans to assess the climate impacts of new natural gas pipelines after Manchin and top Republicans including John Barrasso and Mitch McConnell applied pressure.

Critics said the new rules would hamstring the industry at the same time that the White House was promoting exports to Europe.

But while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated Biden’s climate plans, it has also pushed energy security up the political agenda, giving US officials and Democrats a chance to position climate funding as a national security imperative.

“It’s challenging . . . We actually have to meet the energy challenges with what we have now, which has been more oil heading out to the EU and other places,” McCarthy said earlier this month during an appearance at Brown University. “But it also has to mean that we have to pivot even more quickly to clean energy because we cannot give up our long-term understanding of the vulnerability that we’re facing.”

“The fundamental flaw is our dependence on fossil fuels and how vulnerable it makes us,” McCarthy said.

State department officials are similarly hoping that the renewed focus on energy security in Europe will supercharge the deployment of renewable energy overseas as countries try to break their dependency on Russian gas.

On Capitol Hill, the national security argument has found unlikely champions among climate advocates on the progressive wing of the Democratic party. “It is clear now more than ever: addressing climate change and energy independence is not just an environmental issue, it is a matter of national security,” Bernie Sanders, the Democrat senator from Vermont, wrote on Twitter.

Biden has shown he is willing to use the Defense Production Act to secure green energy supply chains. Last month the White House invoked the DPA to make funding available to US domestic mining operations linked to the minerals crucial for electric vehicles and large-capacity batteries.

The vast majority of Biden’s legislative climate proposals so far have been wrapped into the $1.75tn Build Back Better package, which Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and a key swing vote in the narrowly divided chamber, effectively torpedoed late last year.

Any new climate measures will probably need Manchin’s backing. “The latest focus is the national security supply chain and saying that this is important not just for the short term but the long term for energy security,” said Ben Koltun, director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors.

“This is all for an audience of one,” said Koltun, referring to Manchin. “It’s unclear how effective this rhetoric is.”

Koltun said the Biden administration’s “original sin” on climate was to “overpromise and underdeliver”. “They were so optimistic . . . but the reality of a 50-50 Senate is there’s a limit.”

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