US President Joe Biden on Wednesday elevated climate change to an “essential element” of American foreign policy and national security, announcing three executive orders that would include putting a halt to new oil and gas drilling on public lands, federal agencies eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and raising targets for the country’s fledgling offshore wind sector.

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“We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can't wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes, we feel it, we know it in our bones and its time to act,” said Biden, who took office a week ago pledging to be the most aggressive president on climate action. “We know what to do. We just got to do it.”

He described climate change as an "existential threat" to the country and said his executive orders will "turbocharge" his administration's ambitious plan to confront it. Among the key goals are to achieve a carbon-free electric grid by 2035, invest several trillion dollars in clean energy infrastructure and manufacturing capacity, and electrify much of the nation's commercial vehicles and city transit buses.

To the surprise of some political supporters, Biden teed up an early, potentially fierce confrontation with lawmakers including some in his own Democratic Party from states that are reliant on hydrocarbon royalty and tax revenue to balance their budgets and help fund public education.

'Eliminate those subsidies'

“I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to Big Oil to the tune of $40bn in fossil fuel subsidies. I’m going to the Congress asking them to eliminate those subsidies,” he said.

The oil industry has defended those tax breaks for decades, but its lobbying clout will be tested with polls showing global warming a more pressing issue with most Americans and consumers looking for cleaner energy alternatives. However, oil industry jobs pay more than those in solar or wind and sector employment rose in Pennsylvania and some other states under former President Donald Trump.

The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's body, estimates the drilling ban will cost the US economy a cumulative $700bn by 2030 and loss of nearly one million jobs by the end of next year.

Conversely, renewables and energy storage advocacy groups have gained a much wider audience and influence in Congress as shown by the big uptick in federal incentives and spending for the sector in last month’s Covid relief law.

In Wednesday's orders, Biden directed the Department of Interior (DoI) to “pause” new oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands to undertake a comprehensive review of the leasing programme, though the move does not impact existing operations or permits for valid leases.

Biden restated that his administration has no plans to ban hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to the disappointment of green groups who claim the process is detrimental to the environment.

Earlier in the day, the White House released details of the executive orders that effectively reasserted the federal government’s leadership in tackling the climate crisis after four years of Trump ignoring it while advancing pro-fossil fuel policies and watering down emissions regulations.

To oversee the new approach, the actions formally create the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy led by Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2013-2017. She will coordinate and implement Biden’s domestic climate agenda. The position does not require Senate confirmation.

Also established is a National Climate Task Force that brings together leaders of all 21 executive branch federal agencies and departments to enable what Biden calls a “whole-of-government” approach to combatting climate change.

The orders enact several of Biden’s multi-pronged Build Back Better climate and Covid economic recovery plan he unveiled in last year’s election campaign. They direct federal agencies to procure carbon-free electricity, zero-emission vehicles and buy from suppliers here – preferably those that are transitioning their operations to clean energy.

Today's executive actions follow others last week for the US to rejoin the 197-nation Paris agreement on climate change, and revoking the construction permit for the controversial Canada-US Keystone XL crude oil pipeline.

Offshore Wind confusion

Biden’s instructed the DoI to identify steps that can be taken to “double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030”, but the wording left industry officials scratching their heads as only 42MW of capacity offshore in currently commercial operation: the 30MW Block Island array in Rhode Island waters and two turbines totaling 12MW in federal waters off Virginia.

The Business Network for Offshore Wind (BNOW), a Baltimore-based industry development body seeking to build a domestic supply chain for the sector, offered a possible explanation.

There are currently 1.7 million acres (688,000 hectares) under lease on the federal outer continental shelf spread across 16 zones. This translates to 21GW of potential capacity for those lease areas using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s power density calculator for offshore wind (3MW/km2).

If DoI doubles the area of federal waters leased for offshore wind development to 3.4 million acres, this would increase the total potential capacity of leased areas to 41GW using the NREL calculator.

East coast states have commitments to procure 29GW of capacity through 2035 with almost 9GW under contract or awarded. Biden has said he wants “thousands of turbines” installed at sea during his four-year term.

“We are pleased that the President’s team has identified offshore wind as an important part of the climate and economic plan," Laura Morton, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for offshore wind at the American Clean Power Association (ACPA), said in an emailed statement to Recharge.

"We are confident the Interior Department will set out specific targets for offshore wind as part of their efforts to boost the economy and accelerate deployment of clean energy technologies in an environmentally sustainable manner," she added.

Among member companies in the Washington, DC-based national trade group are leading offshore wind turbine OEMs GE Renewable Energy and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy.

Early reaction from clean energy groups was overwhelmingly positive. “The president has outlined a clear and carefully thought-out vision for addressing the range of climate challenges we face, and I commend and thank him for taking swift action on many of those challenges during the first week of this administration,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group based in Washington, DC.

Calling the orders a promising start, Hopper added: “I’ve always said that clean energy growth is inevitable, but the speed, scale and equity of that growth is driven by policy investment.”