Joe Biden’s climate agenda hangs in the balance. After insisting his transformative Build Back Better (BBB) bill – which includes $550 billion in spending on green technology and infrastructure – would pass into law by Christmas, Democrat Senator Joe Manchin from coal state West Virginia said on Fox News Sunday (19 December) that he “cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation”. 

Given the 50-50 Democrat-Republican split in the Senate, where Democrats only have a majority via Vice President Kamala Harris’s deciding vote, Manchin’s opposition represents a potentially fatal blow to a plan that was supposed to finally put some legislative substance behind the president’s green rhetoric. And this Christmas’ setback is just the latest development in a year where data shows no major deviation from business-as-usual climate action, despite the promises made on the campaign trail. 

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia speaks to reporters in the basement of the US Capitol Building in December 2021. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In contrast to calls from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in May 2021 to immediately end new oil and gas exploration licensing to get on track to net zero, Biden’s federal government has issued an average of 339 drilling permits per month over the course of 2021, which is more than the 316 average issued over the course of the Trump presidency. This comes on top of the recent fracking boom, which means the US has overtaken Saudi Arabia and Russia to become world’s largest oil and gas producer.

Just four days after COP26 finished in Scotland in November – where the US insisted it was “back at the climate change table” – the federal government held the largest ever auction of oil and gas drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico, covering 80 million hectares of ocean. In December, following a year-long review, the US Interior Department recommended increasing royalty rates and avoiding drilling near key habitats, but stopped short of calling for an end to new drilling on public lands – although drilling is the cause of around one-quarter of US emissions. 

The US is decarbonising. Even under a determined climate skeptic like former President Donald Trump, cheaper renewables replaced more expensive fossil fuels.

“The accelerating transition towards clean energy has been driven primarily by market forces," says Clark Williams-Derry from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). "High and volatile natural gas and coal prices are pushing the electricity sector towards more stable and reliable wind and solar technologies. President Trump was fiercely pro-coal, but coal output fell three times as fast during the Trump administration as it did during Obama's first term in office.” 

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Market forces have continued to be the main driver of the energy transition under President Biden, says Williams-Derry. But they will not be enough for the US to meet its pledge of 50-52% greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. 

The American energy transition has not been world-leading: most European countries have phased out a greater proportion of their coal, while the US's roll-out of solar and wind power is the 44th largest in the world relative to economic size (it is second in absolute terms, after China).

The US did not join 23 other nations in making a new commitment to phase out coal at COP26, setting it apart from the rest of the world with China and India. US climate envoy John Kerry led efforts at the conference to oppose the establishment of a ‘loss and damage facility’, which would have compensated developing countries for harm from extreme weather. The move continued a long tradition at UN climate conferences of the US opposing any motion to provide countries that have contributed little towards climate change with preferential treatment. It was because of a failure to view countries on an equal footing the Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

US hands are tied

But it is important to understand why the US is acting as it is. Most analysts agree the political will to act on climate change in the mainstream Democratic party is genuine. But the polarised nature of modern US politics, as well as the wafer-thin Democrat majority in the Senate, mean Joe Biden has been unable to make good on his green promises

“There is a disparity between what the US is doing and what it is saying, because we are getting ahead of ourselves in international spaces compared to where we are domestically,” says Cherelle Blazer from US NGO the Sierra Club. “Politicians want to come out and say we will phase out coal and the rest of the fossil fuel economy, but it would not be pragmatic, in case it scares senators like Manchin away.” 

The fact that Joe Manchin – who receives the largest coal, oil and gas industry donations of any senator – has now definitively come out in opposition to the current iteration of the BBB, even after Biden made concessions worth hundreds of billions of dollars, demonstrates just how weak the president’s hand is. 

One such concession was the scrapping of Biden’s $150bn clean electricity programme in October, which would have rewarded utilities that switched from burning fossil fuels to renewables, and penalised those that did not. Many analysts considered this the most critical part of the president’s climate policy agenda.

The bonanza of new oil and gas drilling licenses issued in the first year of Biden's presidency similarly demonstrates the president’s weak hand. 

When Biden first assumed office, he immediately issued a temporary ban on new drilling permits, pending a review of how they should be evaluated. Numerous oil companies and states sued the government; a federal judge in Louisiana agreed with states that they would suffer significant damage from the pause in permitting, and overturned the ban. 

The massive Gulf of Mexico oil and gas auction in November was the result of the Louisiana court ruling, stresses the government. “It’s important for advocates and other people out there [...] to understand that it’s not aligned with our view, the president’s policies, or the executive order that he signed,” said the White House press secretary after the auction took place. 

The US story of oil and gas leasing is the result of “living in a non-parliamentary system”, says IEEFA’s Williams-Derry. The interaction between states, Congress and the White House creates checks and balances, but in polarised instances such as this, it becomes “a recipe for political inertia”, says Williams-Derry. 

Hope for the new year

With the latest developments in the BBB’s painfully drawn-out passage through Congress, there is intense frustration in certain environmentalist corners. 

“If Vietnam and Indonesia can commit to move beyond coal, we have no excuse,” said Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy at environmental network The Sunrise Project, on Twitter. “They don’t live in economic conditions where the coal industry is in structural decline [...] and yet they are willing to go much further than we are

“At some point we need to stop hiding behind Manchin," he added. "We need to clearly and forcefully articulate where we’re going.”

There is hope the direction of travel could change in the new year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is still hopeful a deal can be reached on the BBB next year, even if it is “disappointing” the bill will not pass by the end of 2021. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, has promised to keep working on the bill until a version passes. 

Sierra Club’s Blazer points to Republican states leading the transition to renewables, with Nebraska recently becoming the 20th state to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2050, as evidence the tide is fundamentally shifting. “So many environmental policies were stripped back under Donald Trump. There was also a clear agenda from that administration to bring coal back, regardless of what market forces were saying. What we have seen this year is a hangover from that,” she says.

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), highlights how the American renewable sector is “growing at a booming pace, with 2021 shaping up to be the second consecutive record year for combined wind and solar development”. ACORE expects more than $50bn to be invested in renewables this year, and when – or if – the BBB passes, that roll-out to be further amplified. 

Recent modelling from research company Wood Mackenzie demonstrates just how far the clean energy provisions in the BBB should stimulate solar market growth. If the bill is enacted in its current form, the US is projected to install 43.5 gigawatts (GW) of additional solar capacity from 2022-26, bringing total US solar capacity to more than 300GW. 

All that needs to happen is for Congress to pass the bill. Then, says Blazer, the US will have the “whole of government approach” that will finally bring its policy in line with its long-term ambitions, and Joe Biden can assume the mantle of climate leadership he desires on the world stage.