Washington • President Joe Biden on Wednesday will direct federal agencies to determine how expansive a ban on new oil and gas drilling leases on federal land should be, part of a suite of executive orders that will effectively launch his agenda to combat climate change, two people with knowledge of the president’s plans said Monday.
An eventual ban on new drilling leases would fulfill a campaign promise that infuriated the oil industry and became a central theme in the fight for the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania, where the natural gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become big business.
The move is the most prominent of several that Biden will announce Wednesday, the two people said. The president also will direct the government to conserve 30% of all federal land and water by 2030, create a task force to assemble a governmentwide action plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and issue a memorandum elevating climate change to a national security priority. Biden will also create several new commissions and positions within the government focused on environmental justice and environmentally friendly job creation, including one to help displaced coal communities.
The programs and proclamations are supposed to signal that climate change is back on the government agenda, bigger than ever. What they will not deliver, at least yet, is a steep and rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“Can this administration do a lot on its own? Yes,” said Jonathan H. Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University. “But,” he added, “if the standard, though, is atmospheric stabilization, I’m skeptical the administration can do anything near enough administratively.”
That will require legislation, Adler said, “especially if a premium is put on getting emissions reductions as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for the White House declined to comment on the orders, and two people close to the administration noted that final decisions on them were still being refined.
The likelihood that Congress can pass vast parts of Biden’s $2 trillion climate change agenda is only slightly greater now that Democrats hold the slimmest possible majority in a 50-50 Senate. There is little hope of passing a carbon tax or other mechanism to put a price on greenhouse gas pollution, which would push cost-conscious corporations to emit less.
Without legislation, the administration will have to rely on the regulatory process to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and smokestacks and improve vehicle fuel efficiency, but that takes time too. It cannot be done by executive order.
“The tons of carbon pollution in the air is what matters in the end,” said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University and co-chairman of a group that delivered climate policy blueprints to the Biden administration.
Profeta said the orders on Wednesday did represent an important first step.
“The Biden administration can do quite a bit to start to put the country on the right trajectory with its own authorities,” Profeta said. Wednesday, he said, “starts the process.”
The expected clampdown on new oil and gas leases goes further than Biden’s actions on Inauguration Day, which halted the Interior Department and other agencies’ authority to issue drilling leases or permits for 60 days while the administration reviewed the legal and policy implications of the current federal minerals leasing program.
The new policy will call on agencies to consider how much federal land and waters should be preserved from mining and drilling or set aside for renewable energy production, according to the two people familiar with that order, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the policy publicly.
Fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters accounts for almost a quarter of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and Biden campaigned on ending new drilling as a key to tackling climate change.
Much of the environmental community applauded the plan, though some said Biden is not going far enough.
“It’s vital that President Biden permanently ban all new fossil fuel extraction, including fracking, on federal lands and waters,” said Mitch Jones, policy director for Food & Water Watch, an environmental group.
Throughout the campaign the left wing of Democratic Party pressed Biden to call for a national ban on fracking, including on private land, where most fracking is done. He refused, but the oil and gas industry remained skeptical. His move on Inauguration Day brought condemnation from the sector and some landowners.
“Your order is a direct attack on our economy, sovereignty, and our right to self-determination,” the Ute Indian Tribe in Utah wrote to the Interior Department in a letter released by the American Petroleum Institute.
The climate task force that Biden is expected to create will devise a plan for what administration officials like to call a “whole of government” approach to climate change, and will focus on two main areas: environmental justice and job creation.
It will call for every agency to take climate change into consideration in government decisions, from federal procurement to financial regulations to lawsuit settlements, experts said.
It also will create a number of councils and committees to try to ensure that poor and minority communities as well as Americans who live in coal country see the economic benefits of clean energy policies.
Biden also is expected to revive and strengthen an Obama-era presidential memorandum in 2016 elevating climate change to a national security priority and requiring intelligence agencies to incorporate climate change into their analyses of national security threats. It was quickly revoked by the Trump administration.
Alice Hill, who oversaw climate planning for the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said that direction from the president is necessary because the senior policymakers who request that analysis, and the intelligence officials who prepare it, often don’t have experience thinking about climate risks.
“When I was in the White House, rarely were climate change risks discussed,” Hill said.
She and others said Biden needed to go further, potentially by converting the memorandum into an executive order that has more authority to direct agencies to take steps like setting strategies and policies to deal with climate-related threats.
“The climate reality of today is higher temperatures, stronger storms, more destructive wildfires, sea-level rise, acidifying oceans and extended drought,” said Sherri Goodman, a deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security under President Barack Obama and now a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.
“We need a climate security plan for America that climate-proofs American infrastructure and puts climate and clean energy innovation front and center,” she said.