Joe Biden declined to embrace the Green New Deal during Tuesday's presidential debate, but stakeholders should not take that as a sign that a Biden administration will shy away from major energy policy changes, including adopting elements of that proposal, experts said at a panel discussion on Wednesday.
While Biden is likely to pursue policies that could disrupt the oil and gas sector, industry is not as concerned by a potential Biden presidency as observers might believe because companies are able to adapt to and work within any framework and because Donald Trump's administration has created "chaos" for the sector in many respects, said Frank Maisano, senior principal with Bracewell LLP, representing various energy companies. He also suggested the industry could "squelch the worst aspects of the progressive movement" and work with a Biden administration toward bipartisan compromise on energy policy.
The unexpected discussion of climate change at the debate and the fate of the Green New Deal pending the election outcome were major topics of conversation during a virtual session at the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference on Wednesday.
"I certainly was surprised as much as anyone [Tuesday] night to hear Chris Wallace ask the climate change question," Maisano said, noting that "climate Twitter exploded when that happened."
"Of course, the answers we got weren't very substantive" as debates do not lend themselves well to answering complicated climate questions, he added.
Biden declined to support the Green New Deal — introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. — which outlines a plan for addressing climate change. The Congressional resolution on the Green New Deal outlines several potential impacts if global warming continues at a rate at or above 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre industrialized levels, including causing more than $500 billion in lost annual economic output in the United States by the year 2100, wildfires that by 2050 will annually burn at least twice as much forest area in the western United States than was typically burned by wildfires in the years preceding 2019, and a risk of damage to $1 trillion of public infrastructure and coastal real estate in the United States.
"One of the things to come of the debate [Tuesday] night was apparently nobody likes the Green New Deal and everybody kind of agrees that we're not there," said Tim Charters, executive director at the Congressional Western Caucus. "But the key with all of these issues on the energy side is balancing — to find a way to act on climate change with a way to balance with the needs and the jobs of the American people."
Jim Lyons, an independent consultant and former U.S. Department of Agriculture official, said "There are elements that Vice President Biden has endorsed, but he hasn't endorsed the entire package and he worked that out with the various supporters of the Green New Deal."
Referencing a potential Biden win, Maisano said "I don't think industry is concerned as much as people might think they're concerned. The reason I say that is because we really do operate in the environment that we're in. For instance, the last four years have been difficult for a lot of the folks that I work with in sectors across the board because of the uncertainty and the chaos that this administration has presented."
Biden will pursue "easy" climate solutions if he is elected such as mandating climate risk disclosure, addressing the social cost of carbon and re-engaging in the Paris climate agreement, Maisano said. "Those are the things that are going to be quick wins for Biden should he take office," he said.
But Biden could also pursue major changes for the oil and gas sector such as eliminating leasing on federal lands, eliminating its tax depreciation benefits or shifting its tax credits to the renewable energy sector, the speakers noted.
"I take Biden at his word that they're going to go, particularly on the oil and gas side, very aggressively," Charters said.
But Charters said most of the stakeholders he works with are not preparing for a Biden presidency.
"I think folks are still convinced that the president is going to win re-election," Charters said, adding that an infrastructure package that includes transmission and renewable energy buildout could emerge in a second Trump term.
Renewable energy development, though, will continue to face challenges, including in states where voters express support for such projects in polling, according to the speakers. For example, the Maryland Department of Environment denied a permit application in August 2019 for a 32.5 MW solar project that would have provided power to Georgetown University.
"Everybody raises their hands and says 'I'm all for the environment, I'm all for building renewable energy,' but the reality is how do we deliver that," Charters said. "I'd love to see this stuff built. But in Maryland, one of America's bluest states, Georgetown University … couldn't build it."
Lyons noted that the permit was denied in part because of the forest clearing that would have occurred due to that project. The project would have cleared 249 acres of a 540-acre protected forest area, according to the department's letter denying the permit.
"Siting becomes a critical question which can be addressed," Lyons said.
"But if you can't build it in Maryland, where are you going to build it?" Charters asked.
Transmission challenges continue to be an issue when discussing the shift to renewable energy, with Maisano linking them to power issues in California.
"That's one of the reasons why California earlier this year had rolling blackouts because they couldn't get enough power generated because they have challenges managing the grid when the sun goes down because they have a lot of solar," Maisano said. "Now, it's not renewables' fault totally, but they're going to have to have reliable backup because traditionally their reliable backup has been to borrow from other states and they just couldn't do it because the other states were facing the same problem they were facing."
A June 2020 report by staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission outlined the obstacles to transmission development, including permitting and planning challenges, access to existing rights-of-way, and federal action that may unintentionally disincentivize transmission planning and development.
"I think these fights over transmission, over building large-scale, economy-wide energy systems on federal lands, particularly in the West with transmission and new development, is a real challenge and I don't think folks take seriously how hard it is to build this infrastructure when they talk about the dynamic of 'we're going to be fossil fuel free in the energy space by 2035.' You can't build anything by 2035," Charters said.
"The idea of building dozens, 20, 30 major transmission lines, hundreds of major wind farms and solar farms in places around the country, building massive storage facilities, there's just no way," Charters added. "You can't even invest enough to make it happen."
Offshore energy, meanwhile, has "its own set of problems," including challenges securing necessary permissions under the National Environmental Policy Act, Charters said. In July, President Donald Trump announced his administration finalized changes to NEPA to reduce the number of projects that require federal review and narrow the scope of effects considered under those reviews. In September, a group of New Jersey legislators asked the state's Board of Public Utilities to suspend approval of a proposed wind energy project off the Atlantic City coast over concerns about its economic benefits.
"You have an industry that apparently everybody loves, but is probably still a decade from any significant actual development coming online," Charters said. "That is just the reality of the way the process is going to work."
Maisano noted that he has been working on wind turbine projects since the beginning of 2009.
"If you had told me that I'd be sitting here 11 years later and we would really not have any significant offshore wind projects in the water, I would have told you (that) you were crazy because I would have thought we would have done it by now," Maisano said. "But that just shows you the physical, administrative and procedural challenges that you often face even where a state or regulatory body is somewhat supportive of it."