Four Things to Know About Joe Biden’s Big Energy Plan

Biden-on-Train

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure and energy plan released today somehow goes all-in on electric cars, transit, and environmental justice simultaneously — and would even create an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice.

The former Vice President’s plan is being lauded by climate change activists for its sweeping scope and aggressive timeline to address global warming in transportation and the broader built environment. The full $2-trillion would be spent over the course of candidate Biden’s first term towards transitioning the United States to 100 percent clean energy by 2035 — a stark contrast to the candidate’s comments during the Democratic primary, when he said he didn’t think such a transition would be possible until at least 2050.

The ambitious new goal is the reportedly the result of deep engagement with progressive policy proposals like the Green New Deal and Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s 100 Percent Clear Energy for America Plan.

The plan tracks far further to the left than Biden’s previous statements as a candidate, but it’s still heavily reliant on policies that could maintain the United States’ car-centered status quo — if the candidate’s arguably equal ardor for transit doesn’t subtract drivers from the roads.

The Biden campaign also released a proposal for securing environmental justice for equitable opportunity for Americans disenfranchised by U.S. transportation and energy policy, but it is unclear how the plan would work in practice. Both of Biden’s programs are low on actual dollar amounts, besides the $2-trillion umbrella commitment on the whole.

Here are the highlights, curated for Streetsblog readers who want to draw their own conclusions:

1. The plan focuses heavily on ending climate change — but only in ways that involve building more stuff and creating more jobs

Since the very beginning, Streetsblog has been skeptical of the Green New Deal’s focus on ending climate change by upping the production of the cars and highways that are our largest single source of emissions — but doing it in cleaner, greener, equally deadly forms. Biden’s plan also emphasizes climate change strategies that double as job creators, rather than reckoning with two uncomfortable truths: that we already have more roads than we can afford to maintain and we have more dangerous mega-cars in our neighborhoods than is safe for most pedestrians.

The plan promises to address income inequality by “creat[ing] millions of good, union jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure — from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband — to lay a new foundation for sustainable growth.” We’ll see if all that “sustainable growth” leaves more people dead in car crashes or not.

2. One million new jobs in the (electric) auto industry

Biden is proud of his role in the auto industry bailout 2009 — even though many prominent economists aren’t so sure it was the right call. And he’d give the industry a COVID-19 era boost if he makes it into office — but this time, he’ll encourage auto makers to build more electric cars instead.

The plan would implement a version of the Clean Cars for America rebate program focused on getting consumers to buy new fuel-efficient American cars — a nationalistic twist on the Obama-era Cash for Clunkers program that had negligible environmental benefits while creating a new auto-lending crisis in poor communities. Biden is claiming that such a program would go better this time around because he’d simultaneously clean up the power grid on which electric cars rely, but he doesn’t address how he’d prevent a renewed economic crisis for low-income Americans in the process.

EVs aren’t the only thing America is poised to get a whole lot more of if Biden wins the White House. He’d also set a goal of creating 500,000 EV chargers, along with funding an electric vehicle infrastructure training program that targets underrepresented groups. Federally funded projects would be required to prioritize Project Labor and Community Workforce Agreements and employ workers trained in registered apprenticeship programs, which could theoretically create a large new class of stable union jobs.

But the plan is vague on how much of the $2-trillion pot would go towards improvements on existing roads, like adding electric vehicle chargers, versus building new roads — which we definitely don’t need. And nowhere in the report does Biden discuss funds for decommissioning roads that have been corrosive to public health and the intergenerational wealth of Black and brown communities — like many downtown highways. 

3. Amtrak Joe is back…kind of

Biden’s love for rail travel is well documented (and well memed), and he picks the thread back up in the transit elements of his plan. Amtrak Joe promises to “spark the second great railroad revolution” for both passenger and freight travel, and the candidate says he’ll “tap existing federal grant and loan programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, improve and streamline the loan process…[and] work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system.”

But how much money he’ll put into this “revolution” isn’t clear — nor is his commitment to municipal transit particularly concrete, either.

Biden promises to “provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments,” but he’s mum on how he’d provide for the mobility needs of smaller communities, or how funding will be augmented in larger cities to meet the historic challenges that transit faces during COVID-19 — challenges that are expected to last well into his first term. 

And some Streetsblog readers might not be too keen on the Biden approach to transit-oriented development, which would “create a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start.” That could be good — or it could dump even more federal money into commuting options for rich suburbanites — perpetuating sprawl without densifying core neighborhoods. That could make walking and biking even less viable for the poor.

4. An important asterisk for equal rights

Maybe the most interesting — and least clear — aspect of Biden’s aspirational energy and infrastructure plan is how it handles the questions of environmental justice, environmental racism and broader socio-economic opportunity: with a brief aside in the plan itself, and a larger accompanying document that could have big implications.

Biden’s “Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity” would establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice, which in theory could quash projects such as downtown highways that actively pollute or displace low-income communities. (We’re not super optimistic, though, because the plan specifically notes the new agency would prosecute “corporate executives,” and does not mention enhancing the review process for federal infrastructure projects.)

He would also overhaul the Environmental Protection Agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, which could help protect vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change and other environmental hazards. And maybe most interestingly, Biden would reinstitute citizens’ rights to sue recipients of federal funds whose projects pose environmental and health risks to nearby communities.

All of these measures have the potential to impact dangerous, car-focused road projects — if they are given real funding and real teeth. That’s the question voters should be asking themselves about every element of Biden’s plan — and if he makes it into office, we must hold him to the elements of his plan that most benefit our sustainable and equitable transportation priorities.

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