Joe Biden has announced a pause on new oil and gas leasing on US public lands and waters, one of a long list of directives in the executive orders he signed on Wednesday to tackle the climate crisis both at home and abroad.
The president spoke ahead of signing the orders at the White House as vice president Kamala Harris and international climate envoy John Kerry looked on.
“In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis,” President Biden said, highlighting the increasing threats from more extreme storms, wildfires and droughts linked to climate change.
"We can do this, we must do this and we will do this," Mr Biden said before signing the mandates.
The actions swiftly reversed energy and environment policies put in place by former president Trump, who rebuffed science and ridiculed the crisis.
The Biden administration has elevated the climate crisis to a national security priority, and laid out a conservation plan that would set aside millions of acres for recreation, wildlife and climate efforts by 2030. The president has pledged $2 trillion to tackle the crisis.
The moratorium on oil and gas sales directs the secretary of the interior to put a hold on entering into new fossil fuel leases on public lands or offshore.
The Biden administration will also launch a “rigorous” review of all existing leasing and permitting related to fossil fuel development but does not restrict energy activities on tribal land. It also calls for identifying steps to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030.
Mr Biden also directed federal agencies to “eliminate fossil fuel subsidies as consistent with applicable law”. It was not clear which subsidies could be stripped away under this order, given many of the industry’s tax breaks are congressionally approved. Mr Biden also said he would ask Congress to end subsidies through legislation.
“Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to big oil to the tune of $40bn in fossil fuel subsidies," he told reporters.
At a Wednesday press briefing, Gina McCarthy, White House national climate advisor for domestic policy, said the plan was both about correcting environmental injustice and creating “good-paying, union jobs” in a green economy.
Also at the briefing, Mr Kerry said that the “stakes on climate change couldn’t be higher". He emphasised that the crisis was “existential” and a global issue. “We could go to zero tomorrow and it wouldn’t be enough,” Mr Kerry said, adding that what the US does domestically would be essential to credibility abroad.
He also defended the $2 trillion price tag to fight climate change, saying “we’re already spending the money” in the clean-up of increasingly extreme storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Hours after his inauguration last week, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement and ordered a review of rollbacks of environmental protections under the Trump administration.
Climate activists and environmental groups hailed the decision. Christian Aid’s climate policy lead, Dr Kat Kramer, said that President Biden had hit the ground running on the climate crisis.
“It is good to see Biden making up for the lost time of his predecessor with executive orders on climate change. It's vital that US climate action be at the scale and speed needed to limit global heating to 1.5C," Dr Kramer said.
Oil industry groups slammed the move, saying the president had already eliminated thousands of oil and gas jobs by killing the cross-border Keystone XL oil pipeline in one of his first executive actions.
“President @JoeBiden’s revocation of the Keystone XL permit slashes union jobs & limits economic opportunity for thousands of Americans. Banning new oil and natural gas leases on federal lands would worsen the damage, jeopardizing U.S. energy leadership at a terrible time,” tweeted Mike Sommers, president of America’s biggest fossil fuel lobby group, American Petroleum Institute.
On Wednesday President Biden also signed a memo on scientific integrity underlining his administration’s desire to protect scientists from political interference and speak freely.
The move is a clear denunciation of the Trump era where federal scientists were muzzled in sharing information about climate change, and those with reputations for misinformation elevated to senior roles.
The president’s mandate also establishes climate as an “essential element” of foreign policy and national security.
There is intent to build on the Paris Agreement, the international pact which aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C to prevent dangerous heating, and for the US to “exercise its leadership” to raise the ambitions of countries around the world.
The White House will be holding a climate summit for global leaders on Earth Day on 22 April in the US. “The convening of this summit is essential to ensuring 2021 really makes up for the loss of the last four years, and to make sure COP is an unqualified success,” Mr Kerry said.
Also underway is a new US “nationally determined contribution (NDC)” - a target for reducing emissions that countries submit under the Paris accords. Ms McCarthy said the NDC could be expected before the Earth Day climate summit.
The order directs the director of national intelligence to prepare an estimate on the security implications of climate change, and for all agencies to develop climate strategies as part of international work.
There will also be a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy to coordinate the domestic climate agenda, and a “National Climate Task Force”, assembling people from 21 federal agencies and departments.