Energy in the Executive Branch

Energy in the Executive Branch
El presidente electo Joe Biden habla el lunes 9 de noviembre de
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“Energy in the executive” was Alexander Hamilton’s famous phrase in The Federalist suggesting how the presidency would be the powerful engine of political purpose under the Constitution. Nowadays, though, the phrase takes on a new and narrower meaning: what will the nation’s chief executive do about – well, energy?

As the 2020 presidential election campaign drew to a close, it became apparent that enthusiasm among Democrats to ban fracking for oil and gas production might cost them the all-important state of gas-rich Pennsylvania and stifle any dreams of putting Texas into play. Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris backtracked on their earlier, more aggressive opposition to fracking, saying now that they would limit it to federal lands, of which Pennsylvania has few. Beyond the fracking issue, there’s a larger energy story that may play out in ironic ways in what liberals hope will be the equivalent of Barack Obama’s third term.

Although Biden appears to have edged out Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, a look at the county-by-county vote reveals that Trump did indeed increase his support in Pennsylvania’s rural counties, where natural gas production through fracking has rejuvenated previously sagging local economies. In Texas, energy may have played a significant role in the most startling shift in this election: Trump’s support in several low-income, heavily Hispanic areas of southwest Texas near the border surged dramatically. The large Hispanic support for Trump in Florida is attributed to anti-socialist sentiments among Cubans and other central American emigres, but the same cannot be said of south Texas Hispanics.

While we await survey data or deep-dive analysis from political reporters like Salena Zito, a simple look at the map might provide a common-sense clue about what happened: there is considerable overlap between these pro-Trump Texas counties and the Eagle Ford and Permian shale basins. It does not take brilliant insight to surmise that the Hispanic populations of these areas like the prosperity that the oil and gas boom has delivered. Promises to phase out oil and gas likely don’t sound very promising to these beleaguered communities. Texas may be (surprisingly) the nation’s leading wind-power state, but very little wind-power activity accrued to these south Texas regions.

Beyond the fracking factor is the larger question of the prospective Biden administration’s general energy posture. One of the ironies of our time, little noticed by the mainstream media, is that oil and gas production enjoyed its greatest boom under . . . the Obama administration, though the administration was indifferent if not hostile to oil and gas expansion. The mainstream media also seldom report that the self-styled “climate hawks” who generated the extravagant phantasms of the Green New Deal are privately disappointed at the meager achievements of the Obama years. All they got from Obama was a signature on the largely toothless Paris Climate Accord (which James Hansen, the Paul Revere of climate change, has called “a fraud”) and an EPA regulatory regime – the so-called “Clean Power Plan” – for the electricity sector that was in big trouble in court before Trump pulled the plug on it.

Given that Obama failed to pass a modest emissions-trading scheme (the 2009 Waxman-Markey Bill) when Democrats had big House and Senate majorities, the prospects for the Green New Deal with a closely divided Congress now are less than nil. To have any hope of going forward, the Green New Deal needed a blue wave; it got a red tide instead. What could Biden do with executive action that Obama didn’t?

Rejoining the Paris Accord and perhaps trying to revive the Clean Power Plan in a form that will survive court challenge barely restores the status quo ante. So climate hawks, and some members of the Democratic 2020 presidential field, have urged a presidential declaration of climate change as a national security emergency, a step that would unlock the augmented powers of the National Emergencies Act. Under such a declaration, the president could divert some defense funds to renewable-energy projects, just as Trump used defense funds to build the border wall. He could also suspend existing oil and gas leases on federal land, speed up regulation of auto and truck emissions standards, cancel pipeline projects, and even limit coal exports.

This “anti-energy in the executive” approach would no doubt thrill the Democratic Party’s grassroots, but it would fare poorly in energy-intensive states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that delivered Biden’s narrow victory. But, at 78 years old by the time he takes office and facing the strong possibility that he will be a one-term president, Biden may be an old man in a hurry, one who discounts conventional political calculations.

 

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends.



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