As severe heat waves scorch three continents, President Biden is set to appear at a converted coal plant in Massachusetts Wednesday in an attempt to reinvigorate his besieged effort to fight the climate crisis in the face of setbacks in the courts and Congress.
The visit is among Biden’s first efforts to lay out a new strategy following the Supreme Court’s decision last month that limited his presidential powers to regulate power plant emissions, and the collapse last week of last-ditch talks to rescue Biden’s long-mired Build Back Better climate legislation.
The White House on Tuesday said the president would announce some form of new climate actions at the visit but that he would not go so far as declare a national emergency, an aggressive step that would give him a range of powers normally reserved for more traditional disasters.
“This climate emergency is not going to happen tomorrow, but we still have it on the table,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Beyond policy announcements, though, the moment, staged at the shuttered Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, is intended to carry symbolic weight and portray the president on the cusp of bold moves.
Once the region’s largest coal plant, creating enough electricity to power some 1.5 million homes, Brayton Point was closed in 2017 and found a new life as a logistics, manufacturing and support hub for offshore wind and other industries. Now, Massachusetts is primed to have its first wind farms in operation next year, realizing a years-long dream to establish the state as a leader in the industry, and facilities such as the rebranded Brayton Point Commerce Center are poised to take on a critical role.
“We will stand at the intersection of our past, a decommissioned coal power plant, and on the precipice of our future, American-made clean energy jobs and industries,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who will accompany Biden from Washington along with Representative Jake Auchincloss of Newton and other members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Jean-Pierre said the shuttered coal plant highlights green energy investments the administration has made possible through the $1 trillion infrastructure law that passed last year.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who will also accompany the president, said, “We need to accelerate and scale efforts like this to meet this emergency with the urgency it demands.”
Biden appeared to signal on Friday, after attempts failed to sway holdout Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support the administration’s climate ambitions, that he would take decisive action.
“Let me be clear,” Biden told reporters, “If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment.”
But what that action is has not yet become clear, and it appeared early this week the administration was still debating specific steps. For example, The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Biden would soon declare the climate a national emergency, citing three administration sources. But later in the day the Associated Press reported that a decision on the emergency declaration was less imminent.
Declaring a national emergency is a step that lawyers and advocates say would allow the government to invoke more than 120 statutory powers, giving it new authority and resources to address the climate crisis.
Biden has called climate change an “emergency” before, but has stopped short of making an official declaration under the National Emergencies Act. According to one estimate, US presidents have declared 60 national emergencies since 1976, but never for this purpose.
In additional to the new powers, such a declaration could also “bring focus to climate and clean energy issues” in the main budget and appropriation bills before Congress, said Steve Cowell, executive director of E4TheFuture and a longtime clean energy advocate.
Even without declaring a national emergency on climate, there’s much Biden can do via executive action, said Casey Bowers, executive director of the action fund for Environmental League of Massachusetts. That could include strengthening clean truck and car regulations from the EPA, issuing cleanup standards for climate pollution from power plants, or issuing new standards for methane emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
“Especially with the heat wave that we’re in, it’s clear we need to take as much action as we can, whether it’s declaring a climate emergency or announcing a suite of executive orders that get at reducing emissions,” said Bowers. “We’re really seeing that we must act now because we cannot afford to wait any longer.”
In a letter to Biden on Tuesday, Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and 25 other members of Congress, urged the president to cancel the oil and gas leases offered by his administration on public lands across seven states earlier this summer, and to close offshore waters to new oil leases.
“President Biden and [Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland still have the tools to uphold their commitments to monumental climate action, and that can start right now with banning new fossil fuel leasing, invalidating recent sales, canceling upcoming sales, and issuing a five-year plan with no new offshore leases,” Tlaib said in a statement. “Nothing less than a livable planet is on the line, and now is the time to deliver on our promises.”
Inaction by Congress and the recent Supreme Court ruling have put the onus on both the president to use his executive authority and on states to move ahead with climate action, said Jess Nahigian, state political director for the Sierra Club. “The president and our legislators should be doing everything they can to create good local jobs in a homegrown energy industry while reducing the climate and health impacts of our current dirty fuel energy system,” she said.
The event at Brayton Point will highlight the past — coal — and the clean energy future. The Gulf of Maine off the New England coast is rapidly warming, bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change in the region. But it also stands to benefit from the birth of the new offshore wind industry.
“While it is true that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 96 percent of the world’s oceans, it is equally true that that very same gulf is an extremely desirable spot for wind technology,” said Cabell Eames, political director of 350 Massachusetts and Better Future Project, a Massachusetts-based climate organization.
“This was a site of a dirty coal-fired power plant that was a threat not just to the climate, but to the health of the residents around it,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that spearheaded the charge to shut down the old Brayton plant. “Now it will be the gateway to a clean energy future in the commonwealth as the major connection point to offshore wind.”
Travis Anderson and Dharna Noor of the Globe staff contributed to this report.