The victory of Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 US election will have profound impacts on both domestic and international US policy, and the energy industry will not be spared the shake-up as the US transitions from the Trump to the Biden Administration. With promises headlined by a commitment to build no new coal-fired power plants during his presidency, and a $2tn investment in renewable energy innovation, Biden looks set to undo much of the support for fossil fuels that Trump promised during his leadership, and encourage clean energy development across the US.
While this result has been greeted with enthusiasm by environmentalist groups and those involved in the clean energy industry, a sudden shift away from Trump’s “America first” policy, of encouraging domestic industrial development could prove challenging for fossil fuel-intensive industries that still play a key role in the US economy and energy infrastructure.
Figures from the Energy Information Administration show that, in 2020, the US relied on coal and natural gas for 60% of its electricity production, compared to just 17% for all renewable sources combined. Meanwhile, PwC reports that the US offshore industry alone supports 9.8 million jobs, 5.6% of all US employment. Abandoning these industries could prove devastating to US fuel security on a macro level and individual employment on a micro level, so the transition from fossil fuels to renewables will have to be carefully managed, as Biden will have to balance these conflicting pressures throughout his presidency.
Haik Gugarats and Nader Itayim: Biden set for negotiations with Iran over oil imports
“The president-elect has vowed to lift US sanctions against Tehran and re-join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, as long as Iran resumes compliance with all restrictions on its nuclear program. Sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump in 2018 have cut off more than 2mn b/d of Iranian oil exports,” wrote Haik Gugarats and Nader Itayim for Argus Media in the days following the election result.
“The general consensus among many Iran watchers is that the country will be able to increase output — now at 1.97mn b/d — and to use its crude and condensate inventories built up during the sanctions period to ramp up exports, once US sanctions are lifted,” they continued. “But first, a Biden administration and the Iranian government must agree to the terms of restoring the deal.
“Tehran insists that the rollback of certain restrictions on its nuclear program is reversible, and it has maintained relations with UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency, allowing its inspectors to provide insight if an agreement emerges.”
US Steel: “Manufacturing is vital to the US”
Argus Media also spoke to David Burritt, CEO of US Steel, about how the company would react to Biden’s victory and what this could mean for US manufacturing in general.
“We’ve been around for 120 years and no matter who’s leading this country we’re going to work well with whoever is in charge,” said Burritt. “I think manufacturing is vital to the US. We see so many times that people want to outsource manufacturing to other countries and that’s dangerous, right? You just think about how important it is to be self-reliant, and if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, certainly that gets highlighted.
“You really can’t have a robust supply chain unless you manufacture things in the US, which means you better have a good commodity industry to support that. You just can’t rely on other countries for simple things like masks and medicines and steel to be produced here more cost-effectively.
“There isn’t any type of steel that we can’t do as good or better than anywhere else in the world. There’s no real reason for illegal steel to permeate this country when we can take care of ourselves and be self-reliant.”
IHS Markit: meaningful change only in the long-term
Analyst IHS Markit described how a Biden victory would likely impact US energy policy ahead of the election and associate director Patrick Lucklow concluded that while a Biden presidency would likely lead to legislative reform, it would take some years before the impacts of such a shift would be felt.
“A Biden administration would likely reverse course on federal land drilling, attempt to tighten the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuelled power generation, and accelerate decarbonisation of non-power sectors,” explained Lucklow. “A focus on deploying advanced heating and cooling systems could have significant upside for both natural gas and electricity consumption, but would likely take the better part of a decade to result in truly meaningful changes to annual consumption.
“Another aspect of Biden’s energy policy vision to achieve net-zero economy-wide emissions by 2050 would be to encourage adoption of zero emissions vehicles. Biden’s platform includes a plan to support building 500,000 electric-vehicle charging stations to help kickstart this transition. Perhaps more importantly, a Biden administration would also likely move to reinstate California’s waiver to set its own fuel economy standards and accommodate state policies in other regards.”
Earthworks: “Science-led decisions with greater focus on renewable energy”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, environmentalist group Earthworks is optimistic that the Biden Administration will deliver both tangible change to the US energy industry, but also help encourage a cultural shift towards greater awareness of renewable power issues.
“The Biden-Harris administration’s energy policies will ready our nation for the just, equitable, and fair renewable energy transition,” says Aaron Mintzes, senior policy council at the group. “We hope this will result in more science-led decisions with greater focus on renewable energy and less on fossil fuels, especially from our public lands and waters.
“We may see a few major steps within the first 100 days, by re-entering the Paris Climate Accords and a new climate Executive Order redirecting agencies’ missions toward sustainability. The environmental agencies like the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will again take climate change seriously. CEQ will take a ‘hard look’ at climate impacts across all our government’s decisions while the EPA tackles methane emissions from oil, gas, and other sources.
“Our public lands agencies like the Departments of Interior and the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service will plan for net zero greenhouse gas emissions. This, of course, means fewer oil and gas leases while scaling up renewable energy. These agencies will manage our resources with a renewed climate emphasis on restoring ecosystems, preserving wetlands, reclaiming abandoned mines and oil wells, and better forest management, paired with other techniques to naturally sequester carbon.”
Adrian Lara: a divided congress could impede changes
While Biden may have the will for sweeping energy reform, divisions within the US legislative houses could slow progress and stymie large-scale changes altogether, according to Adrian Lara, senior research manager for oil and gas at Global Data.
“A Biden Administration is likely to have a divided Congress and that means executive orders and executive agencies are the main means for initial changes in some policies,” explains Lara. “I think that this translates into not having abrupt changes in energy policy.
“There are also other campaign commitments such as bringing back regulations on controlling methane emissions, denying permits for pipelines that are currently in a legal process (Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines) and increasing regulations on fuel-economy standards for new cars and trucks. These measures can be enforced by the executive branch. However, at the same time, I think the administration will be careful in pressuring the oil and gas industry, cutting its subsidies, and trying to reduce its market size. After all, many direct and indirect jobs in several states depend on the sector.
“Indeed, there is a $2tn plan to invest in cleaner energy, which is supposed to create jobs and needed infrastructure for transportation and transmission. But this will require congressional approval, and here a divided Congress can complicate the actual amount approved in the plan and how quickly it can be implemented. I think this part is important as it will show how smooth, in the overall picture, it will be to transition away from jobs in the oil and gas sector and create new jobs in cleaner energy.”
AWEA: renewables could help revitalise the economy
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) could prove to be one of many renewable power groups to benefit from the election result, having announced that the country’s renewable sector stands ready to deliver both environmentally responsible and financially viable energy to the US.
“America begins this new decade with the chance to shape an affordable, thriving energy future defined by clean electricity,” said AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan, as the group announced its ‘2021 clean energy road map’, a 100-day plan to develop renewable power in the US. “Our country’s leaders must now move forward with bold, sensible policies to create that future, or risk leaving hundreds of thousands of new jobs and hundreds of billions in investments behind.
“With this plan, the American renewable energy sector stands ready to help revitalize the U.S. economy and forge a more prosperous future for local communities across the country.”
Eunice Bridges: US pipeline projects will face greater obstacles
The new fossil fuel regulations predicted by many could impede progress at some of the US’s largest oil and gas pipelines, despite the considerable time, money, and effort already invested into projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, according to Argus Media writer Eunice Bridges .
“Biden’s election win promises an abrupt shift in federal energy policy, including expanding renewables and rescinding preferential policies for the oil and gas sector,” wrote Bridges. “His victory over President Donald Trump could spell the end of a very long road for the totemic Keystone XL, an $8bn, 830,000 b/d project that has been on the books for more than a decade, seeking to move crude from western Canada to the US midcontinent. Biden’s campaign has pledged to withdraw the presidential permit needed for Keystone XL to operate, ringing a possible death knell for the pipeline.
“The new Democratic Administration will be under pressure from environmental groups to take aggressive action on climate issues and one of the biggest targets is US midstream firm Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access pipeline,” Bridges continued. “The 570,000 b/d line, in service since 2017, is facing a possible shutdown in December because of a court case surrounding its environmental permitting. Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris was one of three dozen lawmakers who in May urged a federal court to shut the line while a new environmental review is pending.
“Energy Transfer says it is confident that Dakota Access will continue to operate as the case moves through the courts. But a Biden administration could intervene.”
S&P Global: expect no new fossil fuel projects
Analyst S&P Global published a number of predictions for the impacts of the election on the US energy sector in the run-up to the vote, with a common theme across a number of fossil fuel sectors being a lack of new projects under the Biden Administration.
“Biden has said that a new coal plant would not be built under his administration, but a large coal plant has not been built since 2013 and there currently are no plans for any new ones,” wrote the analyst. “According to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, nearly 85GW of coal capacity was retired between 2008 and 2019, while another 25GW is planned to be retired by 2025. Biden could also implement a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land, similar to an Obama-era ban. Over 40% of US coal production, or about 303 million stone, was produced on federal land in 2019, according to Energy Information Administration data.
“Biden has proposed halting new drilling permits on federal lands and waters, which puts 1.1 million b/d of oil output and 3.7 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of gas output at risk by 2025 if existing permits and drilled-but-uncompleted wells are allowed to continue, according to Platts Analytics. A total federal drilling ban would cut oil output by 1.6 million b/d. Tighter emissions controls would also crowd out marginal producers. About 750,000 b/d and 9 Bcf/d of production in the US comes from low-producing stripper wells, potentially more vulnerable to costs of increased regulations, according to Platts Analytics.”
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: Biden “has promoted innovation in a wide range of low-carbon energy technologies”
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is a technology-focused thinktank that has suggested possible impacts of the election result on innovation in the clean energy industry specifically. With new technological developments in everything from emerging technologies to supply chain management and infrastructure vital to the clean energy transition, the foundation is optimistic that Biden could help encourage a wave of new investment in the sector.
“Technological innovation is a key factor in achieving virtually all of America’s most important goals: improving public health, strengthening national security, improving competitiveness, ensuring robust increases in living standards, and addressing climate change,” wrote the group in a report . “That will not happen if the government does not develop and implement a coherent set of policies to advance innovation while eschewing policies that would limit innovation. Some of this should involve public-private partnerships.
“Other measures should involve corporate tax and regulatory reform, including boosting innovation incentives. America is no longer the global innovation leader, at least on a per capita basis, and it risks losing out to China over the next decade or two. This could have serious implications for national security, and certainly serious implications for US power globally.
“Democrats have long been more willing to have government take an active role in supporting innovation and competitiveness, but that may be changing too. Many progressives often seem more interested in shackling companies, particularly big companies, and in spending a major share of political capital on pursuing a redistribution agenda, rather than a growth agenda, and placing virtually all industrial policy resources in the ‘green’ sector.”