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Washington Watch: Biden’s Earth Day: Seattle stop brings EO on forests, caps another week of trying to revive a ‘green’ Build Back Better bill

President Biden traveled to the Pacific Northwest to push his climate-change agenda against the backdrop of high inflation, particularly for gasoline. His trip culminated in a Seattle visit on Earth Day Friday, where he signed an executive order to better manage forests in the wake of intensifying wildfires, and to protect carbon-absorbing features of old-growth trees.

Biden, in his first stop in the region as president, talked up tougher auto tailpipe emissions rules, a focus on bringing solar to rural areas, capping leaky oil wells and improving cement production, which makes up about 8% of global emissions. He stressed his efforts to create more high-paying, mostly union, jobs and build out the electric-vehicle charging network, as the U.S. transitions to cleaner energy
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The president also spent Thursday in Portland, Ore. The region unexpectedly sizzled under high temps and fire last year, placing it as another prime example of increased frequency of formerly freak weather.

Biden, in a Seattle park, signed an executive order to inventory and protect old-growth forests. The Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture will use the data to come up with new policies to manage and conserve wooded areas, with an eye towards threats like wildfires. The carbon stored by forests, harvested wood products, and urban trees offsets around 14% of carbon released each year in the U.S., according to a 2020 Forest Service report. The EO does not take steps to limit logging of old growth forests on federal lands.

Biden also used the event to urge more action from Congress beyond the climate-focused measures in last year’s infrastructure law. Biden’s big spending bill, known as Build Back Better, has stalled in Congress but his administration said he’s willing to consider separating the climate-change portions of the broader spending ask.

“I’m acting. We need Congress to act as well,” Biden said Friday, saying that select Republican senators tell him in private they’d align with him, including on climate matters, but for fear of losing their primary races. “My pen’s ready to sign. I’m anxious to sign [efforts to bring more energy-efficient savings to American homes]. Get some of these bills on my desk.”

Achieving a shift toward cutting emissions via cleaner energy and other practices will require returning more of the manufacturing of chips and other components that are now mostly imported from China and elsewhere back to U.S. makers. That includes in the solar space, where panel installers back such imports to meet current demand. Overall, Biden can enjoy a robust snapback for jobs early in his watch. He also addressed steps on student-loan debt and what the administration claims is 100 actions to save households money on utilities.

Biden has faced questions on the contradiction of short-term decisions to boost domestic fossil-fuel industries
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— the largest pollution-emitting sector of the economy — as a means to counter the run-up in prices after Russia’s Putin invaded Ukraine. Biden has said the U.S. can halve its emissions by 2030, on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050, but he must make almost all of his green pledges come to realization. The 2030 and 2050 targets are largely in line with those set by the world’s other wealthy nations.

Read: ‘Enormous buying power of federal government’: Biden aims for carbon-neutral U.S. by 2050 with new executive order

Asked if the U.S. can meet its 2030 target of cutting emissions in half, an administration official this week said, “We have headwinds. We have challenges. We have a crisis on our hands with climate. It’s 2022; I feel good about our odds.”

‘Behind the scenes’

And, while Biden will extoll the benefits for the greening of the economy, including 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, within last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, he’ll have to defend why a would-be crowning achievement of his presidency — the climate-heavy Build Back Better bill — can’t clear Congress. It contains electric-vehicle incentives
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and more tax help for households adding solar and other energy efficiencies.

“‘We have headwinds. We have challenges. We have a crisis on our hands with climate. It’s 2022; I feel good about our odds.’”

— Biden administration official

Biden at one time said some of the more popular climate provisions might be stripped from the big spending bill to face their own test in Congress.

Ahead of the trip west, an administration official said the team is participating in the crafting of a bill “reconciliation package that will cut some of the biggest costs that families face” when it comes to energy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said that negotiations to advance some of Build Back Better’s climate-focused proposals were ongoing even though Biden wasn’t publicizing them. “Just because he’s not talking about it doesn’t mean those conversations are not happening behind the scenes,” she said, the Associated Press reported.

While many efforts are largely taking shape in the private sector, an administration official said “it’s the bully pulpit” of a climate-minded president that empowers these sectors to invest, knowing that regulatory and spending conditions could align in their favor.

The climate-office official said the administration can claim some part in the record-setting number of new solar and wind projects last year, enough to power 10 million homes. The president, the official said, has been able to chart a course with the auto industryGM to make sure one of every two cars sold in 2030 emits zero emissions.

“The 2 millionth electric vehicle hit the road last year; companies announced over $100 billion in American manufacturing and the rate of public EV charger installation increased by 83%. Plus, we saw the first ever commercial scale offshore wind project in federal waters, the first commercial flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel and the first commitments from U.S. steel
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and cement companies to reach net zero,” the official said.

U.N. wants action, not words

Biden and the U.S. will be under close watch, as will other big polluters, including China and India, as the U.N.’s climate arm, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has issued recent red-flag updates on progress toward slowing global warming. Officials said the White House climate team would be briefed on the latest IPCC report this week.

“ The president’s Seattle stop will showcase ‘how we are using Mother Nature to help tackle climate change and support the economy.’ ”

— Biden administration official

The administration has had to defend recent moves to keep U.S. oil and gas flowing, including opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and temporarily easing EPA rules on ethanol.

And last Friday, the Biden administration announced that lease sales for oil and gas drilling on federal land can resume, an expected move after a Louisiana federal court injunction. But, the administration said, after the ruling, it would sharply reduce the acreage available for leases and charge higher royalties on the oil and gas produced.

The official, during the Monday briefing, said it’s important to separate the action forced by the court from the leeway it still brought the Biden Interior Department in both limiting future drilling and pushing the already-granted leases into action to help ease the oil-price jump for consumers right now.

But that isn’t the only court potentially in Biden’s way.

His plans to use executive authority to enact tougher new rules on greenhouse pollution from power plants and autos could be sharply limited by an upcoming decision from the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

The officials insisted this week that the power sector is more on side than reports might imply.

“We’ve got a utility sector that is… pushing in unison for robust [greenhouse gas] action, as well as for a suite of tax credits that are going to save American consumers money and bring private capital off the sidelines,” the official said.

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