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Biden flexes federal purchasing power on climate

Order aims to advance adoption of energy-efficient buildings, zero-emission vehicles and climate-friendly goods and services

President Joe Biden spoke at the General Motors electric vehicle assembly plant in November.
President Joe Biden spoke at the General Motors electric vehicle assembly plant in November. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order aimed at leveraging the massive purchasing power of the federal government to advance the adoption of energy-efficient buildings, zero-emission vehicles and climate-friendly goods and services.

“As the single largest land owner, energy consumer, and employer in the nation, the federal government can catalyze private sector investment and expand the economy and American industry by transforming how we build, buy, and manage electricity, vehicles, buildings, and other operations to be clean and sustainable,” according to the order.

The White House pointed to the federal government’s 300,000 buildings, 600,000 vehicles and annual purchases of $650 billion in goods and services as evidence of how much influence it can wield on the private sector.

The order includes a provision under which the heads of agencies can issue exemptions in the interest of national security and intelligence gathering. It also specifically cites the potential to exempt combat vehicles, aircraft and equipment.

It also lays out a series of goals, including a 65 percent reduction in federal operations emissions by 2030, from 2008 levels, on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050. Federal procurement would adopt a policy to promote using construction materials that are produced with less carbon-intensive methods.

The order calls for 100 percent zero-emission vehicle acquisitions by 2035, including 100 percent zero-emission light-duty vehicles purchases by 2027. Under the order, the government would look to align its purchases with the cause of promoting climate-resilient infrastructure, building a workforce focused on sustainability, advancing environmental justice and prioritizing products that don’t contain added perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

The order comes as Democrats have knocked out or weakened various climate-related parts of their budget reconciliation package to satisfy moderates within the party. The Clean Electricity Performance Program was completely ditched, for example, while a fee on excess methane emissions has been modified to include a multiyear phase-in and hundreds of millions of dollars to help industry defray compliance costs.

Other provisions, such as electric vehicle tax credits that include a boost for cars and trucks produced with union labor, face an uncertain future as the Senate parliamentarian reviews whether they conform with the strict rules governing reconciliation and face potential opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

GOP critique

Republicans have criticized Biden for taking actions they say are driving up energy costs and inflation along with them. But at the same time, he also has taken heat from some environmental groups that would like to see him pursue even more aggressive climate policies. Some activists were dismayed to see the administration release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in a bid to bring down gas prices.

Biden also has taken flak for moving forward with federal oil and gas lease sales — which the White House says it must do to comply with a court ruling.

The White House said Wednesday’s order reflects the federal government leading by example on tackling climate change and addressing environmental justice, with the government working to purchase electricity from carbon-free sources such as solar and wind.

“Half of the federal government’s 100 percent carbon pollution-free annual electricity demand will be procured on a 24/7 basis, meaning that the federal government’s real-time demand for electricity will be met with clean energy every hour, every day, and produced within the same regional grid where the electricity is consumed,” according to the fact sheet.

That move is expected to prompt the development of at least 10 gigawatts of new clean electricity by 2030, according to the White House.

One question is where the money will come from to fund the sweeping efforts outlined in the order. The White House pointed to funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill — which included billions for electric vehicle charging stations — that Biden already signed into law. It also cited the fiscal 2022 appropriations bills and the budget reconciliation package — but both of those still have to be approved by Congress.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, issued a statement welcoming Wednesday’s announcement as a chance to turn adversity into opportunity.

“Still, our work to address the existential threat of climate change continues,” Carper said. “States should follow the federal government’s lead and implement their own emissions reduction plans. I believe we can help support states as they do so. That starts with passing the Build Back Better Act and seizing the opportunity to make the president’s climate goals a reality.”

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