Coal-fired power plants, like this one in Illinois contribute to greenhouse gases that cause climate change, scientists say. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
With U.S. Senate negotiations over climate funding stalled, President Joe Biden on Wednesday directed additional spending to help states and cities manage climate disasters — resisting calls from many congressional Democrats to take more aggressive executive action like a declaration of a national climate emergency.
Biden also announced steps executive agencies are taking to expand offshore wind development into the Gulf of Mexico and provide funding for local cooling centers.
Dangerous heat waves have become more common in recent years. The United Kingdom and other parts of Europe are currently experiencing record heat and fires.
In the U.S., heat alerts in effect Wednesday covered 100 million people, Biden said during an appearance at a former coal plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey as well as Rep. Jake Auchincloss, all Democrats, and Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse accompanied him.
The administration moves fall far short of what several Democrats in Congress and environmental advocates had urged the president to do after talks between conservative-leaning Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York about a broad climate spending and tax plan appeared to collapse last week. Manchin’s vote would be needed for so-called reconciliation legislation to advance in the evenly divided Senate.
Manchin said he could be open to climate legislation later this summer, but only if he saw favorable inflation figures next month.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that directs environmental funding, told reporters this week that the apparent dead end of Senate climate talks “unchained” Biden from waiting for legislative action. Merkley called on the administration to “pivot to a very aggressive climate strategy.”
Merkley and Whitehouse voiced several options for executive action, including using the Defense Production Act to spur production of clean-energy materials like solar panels, halting approvals of oil and gas projects and enacting new Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
An administration official told reporters earlier Wednesday that Biden was acting because he recognized that the Democratic-controlled Congress would not soon pass a climate bill. Biden said more executive actions would arrive “in coming days.”
“Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world,” Biden said. “This is an emergency – an emergency – and I will look at it that way.
“As president, I’ll use my executive power to combat the climate crisis in the absence of congressional action,” he said.
“We’re going to keep taking climate action every single day because that’s been part and parcel of this administration’s focus,” a senior administration official told reporters. “This is one of the four crises the president defined when he was inaugurated.”
Heat waves, drought
Wednesday’s actions include $2.3 billion for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program to help communities build resilience to climate events like heat waves, drought, wildfire and flooding.
That figure is the largest allocation in the program’s history, the administration official said.
The president also directed the Interior Department to propose areas for offshore wind power development in the southern Atlantic Ocean and off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Following Biden’s remarks, the Interior Department and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said they were reviewing plans to allow offshore wind near Galveston, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana. Together, the sites make up more than 700,000 acres and could power 3.1 million homes, the department said.
The department will also conduct an environmental assessment to possible consequences of allowing wind development across 30 million acres of the Gulf.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department also released guidance Wednesday to help states and local governments respond to heat emergencies.
The guidance allows states and local governments to use funds from the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed in Biden’s first months in office to secure air-conditioning units and provide cooling centers.
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