Last week’s historic winter storm and grid reliability woes in Texas could provide momentum to an even bigger-than-expected push by the Biden administration and Congress to modernize an energy infrastructure that is increasingly pummeled by polar vortexes and other extreme weather events tied to climate change.
So far Biden officials aren’t getting far ahead of their skis on whether the power failures in Texas will give more weight behind their promise to invest heavily in “the next generation of electric grid transmission and distribution,” including battery storage.
But senior Democrats on Capitol Hill are already signaling that it might. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold hearings to investigate what went wrong and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin said his panel will also do a probe. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to Twitter to proclaim that “Democrats are working to pass … robust investments to make our energy infrastructure more resilient, cleaner, and safeguard the country from devastating impacts of the climate crisis.”
FERC EARS PERK UP: At last week’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission monthly open meeting, FERC Chairman Richard Glick reminded reporters that federal law gives FERC authority, albeit limited, over power reliability in Texas. He said it was too early to say what that would mean exactly, while pointing to lessons learned into power system challenges in extreme winter conditions in the midwest and some southern states.
HELPFUL REMINDER: Despite the contention of some Republicans and conservative commentators, wind and other renewable energy power are not primarily to blame for this week’s grid failure in Texas. Wind accounts for about 10 percent of the winter capacity there, whereas natural gas and coal make up 82 percent. While some wind turbines froze and glitched under the extreme cold weather, so did natural gas and coal power generation.
CLIMATE AGENDA INCHES FORWARD AS NOMINEES AWAIT CONFIRMATION: While much of Biden’s environmental and energy cabinet is still awaiting Senate confirmation, senior staff already in place at key departments and agencies are beginning to better define the early days of his administration’s agenda.
Acting EPA air chief Joe Goff, in a federal judicial filing, indicated the agency under Biden will not try to restart the Obama-era Clean Power Plan setting greenhouse gas emission limits for the electricity sector. Instead, EPA will now seek to go even further than the previous Obama rule in setting limits for power plants.
Goff’s filing is built around Biden’s pledge to make the electricity sector carbon-neutral by 2035. The Clean Power Plan had required power plants to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, which would fall short of Biden’s 2035 zero-emission goal. The Obama rule was sued by GOP attorneys general, halted by the Supreme Court and remanded to lower court. Before that legal process played out, it was replaced with a more lenient rule by the Trump administration. The Trump-era rule was subsequently vacated in federal court.
With a closely divided Congress unlikely to approve a far-sweeping climate plan or one that specifically targets greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, EPA will once again be in the same spotlight as in the aftermath of failed congressional cap and trade talks in 2010 that was the last real attempt at a big, bipartisan deal on Capitol Hill.
HAALAND HEARING SET: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Feb. 23 will hold a hearing on Biden’s nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M) to head the Interior Department. Haaland’s support for Biden’s freeze of new oil and gas leasing permits and Green New Deal legislation has bothered Republicans. But she is expected to have the votes to be confirmed in the end.
U.S. REJOINS PARIS AGREEMENT: The U.S. has officially rejoined the Paris climate treaty. “We can’t talk our way back into legitimacy in the Paris process. We will earn our way back,” Biden’s White House climate envoy John Kerry said. He promised a “strong” nationwide commitment from the United States to reduce its greenhouse gasses and an unspecified amount of money to help developing nations, and warned that the world has just the next nine years to decisively act.
KERRY, RUSSIA TALK CLIMATE: Kerry also spoke recently with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about climate change cooperation between the two countries. They discussed “raising climate ambition” as well as Russia’s upcoming chairmanship of the eight-member Arctic Council, whose members also include the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
BIDEN CLIMATE TASK FORCE MEETS: Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior White House officials convened the first meeting of the Biden administration’s National Climate Task Force, which includes cabinet secretaries and the acting heads of 21 federal agencies. White House domestic climate policy chief Gina McCarthy said the discussion focused on job creation and ensuring that agency leaders know their respective roles in helping set a new target for cutting U.S. share of global emissions, which the Biden administration wants to announce on April 22.
FERC’s EJ FOCUS: FERC Chairman Richard Glick plans to create a senior position dedicated to environmental justice and equity at the five-member commission overseeing natural gas infrastructure, electric transmission lines and other major energy projects in wholesale power markets. Glick, who was appointed by Biden to chair the panel, said the “position is not just a title” and that FERC “should more aggressively fulfill its responsibilities to ensure our decisions don’t unfairly impact historically marginalized communities.” This falls in line with the Biden administration’s larger focus on environmental justice, including the nomination of North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan to be EPA administrator.
FED RAMPING UP CLIMATE FOCUS: Federal Reserve board member Lael Brainard, who is an early frontrunner to be the Fed’s next chair by early next year, said climate change is “already imposing substantial economic costs,” and is suggesting that “standardized, reliable, and mandatory disclosures” of climate risks by financial institutions may be part of the solution. She said the Fed’s recently formed climate committee is already working with a “diverse group” of financial institutions and industry groups on how climate risks and opportunities could be part of a plan toward a low-carbon economy.