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Biden announces new climate change programs, but no emergency declaration

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on climate change and renewable energy at the site of the former Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, U.S. July 20, 2022. 
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

President Joe Biden announced new executive steps to combat climate change on Wednesday, but fell short of issuing a climate-emergency declaration as some Democrats have called for amid stalled negotiations over major environmental legislation in Washington.

“Since Congress is not acting as it should … this is an emergency and I will look at it that way,” Biden said. “As president, I’ll use my executive powers to combat the climate crisis in the absence of executive action.”

The initiatives include providing $2.3 billion in funding for a program that helps communities prepare for disasters by expanding flood control and retrofitting buildings, as well as leveraging funding to help low-income families cover heating and cooling costs.

The president also is directing the Department of the Interior to propose new offshore wind areas in the Gulf of Mexico, a plan that could power more than 3 million homes and help the administration reach its goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Biden is ordering the Interior secretary to advance wind energy development in the waters off the mid- and southern Atlantic Coast and Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The president announced the initiatives during a speech at a former coal-fired plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. The plant will host a cable-manufacturing facility to support the offshore wind industry.

The orders come as the White House struggles to salvage Biden’s aggressive climate agenda after talks with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin stalled last week. Manchin, a centrist who holds the swing vote in the 50-50 Senate, told Democratic officials that he won’t support major climate provisions in the reconciliation bill, diminishing hopes of Congress passing any major climate legislation this summer.

The administration also faced an additional setback for its climate agenda after a major Supreme Court ruling last month limited the federal government’s authority to impose regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

Without Manchin’s support on the bill, the president must rely primarily on executive orders to address climate change, which can be overturned by future administrations. Some executive actions could limit emissions from fossil fuel production on federal lands and waters and bolster electric vehicle usage.

Democrats and environmental groups had been calling on the president to issue an emergency declaration that would unlock federal resources to address climate change. Such a declaration could provide the administration with a legal authority to stop some oil and gas drilling or other fossil fuel plans and shift funds to clean energy projects.

Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. were joined by seven Democratic legislators in an effort to urge Biden on Wednesday to immediately decare a climate emergency to unlock the powers of the National Emergency Act (NEA) and pursue regulatory and administrative actions to curb emissions.

“Declaring the climate crisis a national emergency under the NEA would unlock powers to rebuild a better economy with significant, concrete actions,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Under the NEA, you could redirect spending to build out renewable energy systems on military bases, implement large-scale clean transportation solutions and finance distributed energy projects to boost climate resiliency.”

Biden has vowed to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% by the end of the decade and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But without major climate legislation, the country is on track to miss the president’s target, according to an analysis by the independent research firm Rhodium Group.

“A historic climate-emergency declaration is exactly what we need from Biden to match the scale and urgency of this crisis,” said Jean Su, Energy Justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By unlocking crucial climate powers, Biden can put Manchin’s gaslighting behind us and get busy getting us off fossil fuels and building the renewable-energy powerhouse we desperately need.”  

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