Manchin’s decision to hold back support for climate and tax provisions in a broad spending bill leaves Biden with fewer options to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. And it will force the president to rely more heavily on federal regulation—though new rules will face intense legal scrutiny.
“With legislative climate options now closed, it’s now time for executive Beast Mode,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, in a tweet late Thursday.
Biden vowed Friday that he would “not back down” on climate action. “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. “The opportunity to create jobs and build a clean energy future is too important to relent.”
But Biden faces a harsh truth: Federal regulations likely aren’t enough to meet the US pledge to at least halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Biden is also running out of time to advance new regulations. The 2024 presidential election is two years away, yet major rules targeting methane from oil wells and carbon dioxide from power plants are still in the planning stage.
“The congressional component was going to be huge,” said Kevin Book, managing director of research firm ClearView Energy Partners. “That can be emulated but not replicated with regulation.”
Read: Biden vows executive action on climate if Senate doesn’t act
Environmentalists enraged by Manchin’s decision to pause a climate deal are beseeching Biden to declare a “climate emergency”—a move that would unlock a broad suite of executive powers to shut down crude exports, suspend offshore drilling and redirect funds for clean-energy projects. Biden could even use the powers to curtail the movement of fossil fuels via pipelines, trains and ships. (Manchin said Friday he’s willing to reconsider a broader economic package with tax and climate provisions in September).
After Congress dashed Barack Obama’s hopes for enactment of a nationwide cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gas emissions, the former president seized his existing executive powers to independently impose rules targeting oil drilling and power plant pollution. And former President Donald Trump used an emergency declaration to divert billions of dollars to begin construction of a border wall after Congress refused to appropriate the funding.
“Biden has to start today,” said Brett Hartl, a director with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “Biden could still meet his climate goals—but it really does require a pivot in mindset to embrace the powers of the presidency.”
Even without an emergency declaration, Biden can use the federal government’s purchasing power to compel clean-energy acquisitions. He can also seize authority under other laws to clamp down on methane emissions from oil wells and impose tough new emissions controls for automobiles. New methane rules alone could cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100 million metric tons in 2030, according to the Rhodium Group. And Whitehouse is urging the administration to establish a tariff on emission-intensive imports—building on a US and EU agreement targeting the carbon intensity of steel and aluminum.
Read also: Biden team slow-walked green agenda in failed bid to woo Manchin
But Biden was counting on as much as $320 billion in new and expanded tax credits in the climate legislation for renewable power, nuclear plants, biofuels, electric vehicles and advanced energy manufacturing. Democrats estimated the proposed tax incentives would have slashed greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40% by 2030, both by spurring investment and enabling more stringent federal pollution curbs.
Future regulations also aren’t assured of passing muster with a federal judiciary reshaped by scores of Trump appointments. The Supreme Court recently underscored that risk with a 6-3 ruling curtailing the Environmental Protection Agency’s flexibility to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
In that case, the court signaled agencies will be on a tight leash when imposing new regulations on major issues such as climate change, unless they have specific blueprints from Congress. That could diminish Biden’s regulatory options for advancing a green agenda—right when he needs them most.