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Why the War against Ukraine Is an Opportunity to Pass Climate Change Legislation

(Image via Getty)

Russia’s war against Ukraine has led to a chain of reactions that pushed many countries, including the United States, towards increasing their fossil fuel production. After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the United States, in addition to other countries, imposed sanctions against Russia in order to place economic pressure on President Vladimir Putin. Russia is one of the United States’s top oil providers, and the absence of Russian oil and natural gas has inflated American gas prices. This sudden inflation has prompted various politicians on both sides of the aisle to push for Biden to reinvigorate domestic fossil fuel production despite his campaign promises to work towards clean and renewable energy. Reacting to pressures, Biden recently ordered the release of 1 million barrels of oil a day from the nation’s strategic reserves to combat the surging gas prices. 

Biden has instituted various policies like the “use it or lose it” policy to increase short-term oil production, and the White House is now imploring Congress to pass legislation to charge oil and gas companies for unused wells and federal leases. Currently, oil and gas companies in the United States have over 9,000 approved but unused permits to drill on millions of acres of federal land. In March, Biden signed an executive order that banned oil and gas imports from Russia, and Congress passed a bill that codified this order into law on April 7th. This potential increase in fossil fuel production contributes to climate change and takes the United States further away from Biden’s renewable energy agenda. 

The United States has the ability to implement a stronger climate change agenda through Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which includes an extensive plan and budget for moving towards renewable energy—but it needs to pass the Senate. The Build Back Better Act, which passed the House of Representatives in late 2021, faced opposition from Democrats in the Senate over its more progressive attitude towards health insurance reforms and drug prescription pricing. But the climate-focused elements of the proposal might have a better chance of passing on their own instead of as a part of the  larger package, since convincing conservative Democrats to support a narrower agenda would be easier. While the Build Back Better Act remains gridlocked in the Senate, the Biden administration should reintroduce the climate change aspects of the package—including $320 billion of clean energy tax credits, $110 billion in tax credits for green technology and manufacturing, and $20 billion to buy clean energy. 

The pressure to find new oil sources has pushed Biden to consider Brazil as a potential source for oil production. Increasing oil imports from Brazil would contradict his earlier executive order to develop a plan to protect the Amazon rainforest by negotiating for more climate-friendly policies with the Bolsonaro administration. Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has actively contributed to record levels of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest: One of his first acts as president in 2019 was to strip the the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) of its authority to protect indigenous lands and reserves, instead shifting their power to the Ministry of Agriculture. His administration also reduced the budget for the IBAMA, an environmental protection agency, by 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, and with a smaller staff, the agency is less able to track and combat environmental crimes. Also, since Bolsonaro has been in office, nearly 1500 new pesticides have been approved, many of which contain ingredients that are not permitted in other countries because they are hazardous to human health and the environment. 

If Brazil fills the vacuum created by Biden’s ban on Russian oil, the potential for crude oil spills would increase, and the United States’s negotiating power for better climate policies would be reduced. In September 2019, crude oil began to appear on Brazil’s beaches, quickly becoming the most severe environmental disaster in Brazilian history. Despite disputes over where the oil originated, the Brazilian government’s relative inaction in the aftermath of the spill was extremely clear and indicates their inability to prepare for oil-related environmental disasters in the future. After terminating two committees of the National Contingency Plan of Oil Spills in early 2019, the federal government was slow to take action both to prevent the oil spill and to clean up its disastrous impacts on the environment. If Biden encourages Brazil to increase its oil production and increases American financial interest in the country’s oil industry, he will lose his bargaining chip to push to prevent deforestation and other climate change mitigation efforts in Brazil. Biden cannot ask Bolsonaro to reduce deforestation while also accepting Brazilian fossil fuels. Yet the Biden administration is currently moving towards fossil fuels and appears poised to accept any short-term solution that does not involve Russian gas or oil.   

Biden also has plans to export liquefied natural gas to Europe in order to provide an alternative to Russia’s natural gas, which constitutes 40 percent of Europe’s supply. The Biden administration is painting this move as a short-term solution within a larger march towards renewable energy, but the United States’s role in helping Europe to transition off of Russian natural gas feels more like a step in the wrong direction than a temporary setback. Natural gas is made largely of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to planetary warming. The United States and other countries should be moving away from fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gasses, even in these dire circumstances, not towards them. 

The Biden administration should look at other countries, such as Germany, who are introducing legislation that would accelerate their climate change goals. The “easter package” recently approved by their cabinet aims to generate almost all of the country’s electricity through renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2035 and have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. This legislation will move Germany away from not only fossil fuels but also from a dependence on Russia as a fuel source. 

It is critical that the Biden administration introduces climate change legislation that has a chance of passing before midterm elections in November. With Republicans up in the polls and likely to take control of both the House and the Senate in the fall, any climate change legislation must be pushed through as soon as possible. The president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, and with rising gas prices, it will be a steep uphill fight for Democrats to retain a majority in the Senate. The pressure to raise Biden’s approval rating has left talks about climate change on the backburner as Democrats scramble for votes. 

Climate change is rarely a true priority for politicians and is usually one of the first to be scrapped. Despite widespread public support for fighting climate change, tangible legislation rarely makes it through the Senate. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat representing Rhode Island since 2007, said in response to a question about why, with a Democrat-controlled Congress, environmental progress remains limited: “The Democratic party has never taken climate change as seriously as it should. It has never put the energy into it that would create a public reaction of support that would then encourage more activity.”

Biden has the chance to simultaneously hurt Russia’s economy and move the United States towards clean, renewable energy. We cannot afford to waste more time in the fight against climate change. The administration must act, and it must act now.