Notes from Underground: A New Landscape

The change of US administration is set to significantly impact federal environmental policy as well as government transparency, both of which were particularly problematic during the Trump administration. This post provides a view of the state of affairs for pipelines under the Biden administration, as it ties to overall environmental policy and accountability.

The Biden administration has kick-started its environmental agenda with an urgency appropriate for the scale of the topic. Four years of an administration focused on deregulation have taken a dire situation and made it worse.

The Trump administration’s opposition to science and scientific integrity metastasized into a veritable scorched-earth approach to progress on environmental and energy policy. With climate change as the single greatest concern after four years moving in reverse, considerable steps are already being made not only to restore the trajectory established toward the end of the Obama administration, but to compensate for the efforts that have been absent at the federal level since 2017.

Among the most notable moves of the new administration to protect the environment has been the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. With this one act, the administration has indicated a strong inclination to avoid long-term commitment to infrastructure tied to dirty energy.

However the cancellation of one controversial project – that had already been cancelled once and long shown signs of being a dubious investment – was ultimately unsurprising: a return to neutral, or a status quo ante in regard to the Trump administration. But what of other pipelines, like the Dakota Access Pipeline in particular that are every bit as steeped in controversy as Keystone?

Regulators (Regularly) Regulate

The new administration is making a great show of its diversity, and deserves applause for doing so. But additionally it should be praised for its competence – something grossly lacking in the prior administration. Potential cabinet members in the Biden administration have knowledge and experience in the fields where they will be working, and understand that, when it comes to industry, a key role of government is to provide a transparent check on it, not write a blank check for it.

Michael Regan, poised to take over EPA following the PruittWheeler debacle, has shown ample if not excessive deference to the pipeline industry on occasion during his time as North Carolina’s head of environmental protection. Yet he has also made environmental justice for marginalized communities a focal point which he will carry, out of necessity, to the federal level. He may be the most “pragmatic” (see discussion below) of President Biden’s picks where pipelines are concerned.

Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior will bring experience opposing pipeline construction, and has been vocal in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock.

The confirmation of Jennifer Granholm for Energy Secretary will put another opponent of major new pipelines in a vital position to assure a transition to cleaner energy.

The impacts of pipelines on poor, minority, and indigenous communities are not likely to be overlooked by this administration, and the need to phase out fossil fuel reliance rather than double down on expensive new pipelines is well understood. On that basis, it may be expected that massive new pipeline projects will continue to become increasingly rare – and not only for the next four years.

The politically uncertain future of pipeline production and other fossil-fuel industry activities is likely to slow investment in such projects to a trickle. Scientific scrutiny and public opinion will only bolster the uncertainty for pipeline construction.

Defining “Pragmatism”

President Biden can rightly be called a pragmatist, which has both positive and negative connotations. Through his rhetoric and his actions thus far, this President appears determined – despite almost unprecedented US political schisms – to keep as many people and factions happy as he can. This can be a positive when it comes to keeping the public healthy, informed, and financially solvent, and in working – pragmatically – to hasten recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

It may be less positive when it comes to corporate appeasement. President Biden’s pro-business history makes the difficult task he faces even more challenging. A pragmatic politician from the corporate-friendly state of Delaware would have struggled to find success while challenging corporations with strong regulation. Yet providing a strong check on corporate power – such as by cancelling unnecessary pipeline projects – is exactly what this moment requires.

For Biden to maintain his core pragmatism, he will need to do as he appears to be doing: stand up to corporations where their interests conflict with the public good, and appoint people prepared to fight for fairness and transparency. As president in 2021, giving too much weight to the “corporate leaders are job creators” argument or too little to “corporations must be held accountable for their actions” would not be pragmatic. Facing the climate crisis while battling a pandemic will require more oversight of corporations, contrary to the prior administration’s policies.

The pandemic has laid bare many of the shortcomings of US business as usual – and the recent crisis in Texas has shown the terrible risk of public reliance on private, deregulated energy concerns. To truly “build back better” will be challenging and would seem to be a more pragmatic goal than a return to normal.

Epilogue: Prepare for Industry’s Defensive Backlash

Fingers will be pointed about the wasted time, money, and other resources related to abandoned pipeline projects. The simple response is that blame should be placed where it belongs: on the industry itself.

First, the industry at large can take responsibility for claiming “necessity” to justify new infrastructure which is not necessary.

Second, with the political trend and popular opinion at the tail end of the Obama administration clearly skewing toward scrutiny of pipeline projects, the push to reinstate and continue such projects under an administration that never garnered consistent majority support was simply risky business: heavy investment in an uncertain future.

So while the industry’s supporters may complain about “extremists” and “job killers,” they may also soon have to answer questions about the industry’s own actions: a long history of spreading disinformation about the risks posed by their products, funding marketing campaigns to downplay climate change rather than investing more in cleaner energy, inventing jobs numbers that do not hold up to scrutiny, and the influence of industry insiders at the highest levels of government.

Shirking responsibility may be a part of the fossil fuel business model, but it has never been a good model for the long haul. With four years of anti-democratic rule in the rearview mirror, the hope for accountability – and for the protection of the environment, public health, and, ultimately, the economy – may be revived under the Biden administration.

Provided the public insists on “building back better.”