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In the weeks ahead of Friday’s Earth Day, the administration issued new efforts that Biden officials say do not contradict one another — taking steps to lower gas prices and, at the same time, work to strengthen environmental protections.
Speaking in Oregon on Thursday, the President credited his decision to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with lowering gas prices, but said it was time for the US to “get off the roller coaster” of relying on fossil fuels, calling on the country to declare “energy independence” from oil.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality said it restored three major provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of projects such as the construction of mines, highways, water infrastructure and gas pipelines.
The White House is framing the fuel-related actions as efforts that will save American families money and combat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. Administration officials are simultaneously arguing that concessions haven’t been made to achieve the President’s climate goals.
“We are going to continue to meet our climate goals,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters en route to the Pacific Northwest. “Look, the President is committed to doing everything that he can to address the pain that Americans are feeling at the pump. … Our strategy from day one has been to meet folks where they are. It’s about delivering solutions that help people take on the real challenges of real life.”
Jean-Pierre said, “Addressing the emergency supply crunch while accelerating clean energy efforts is fully consistent,” adding, “We believe we can walk and chew gum because families need to take their kids to school and go to work, get groceries and go about their lives. And sometimes that requires gas today, this month and this year. But at the very same time, we must speed up, not slow down, our transition to clean energy. We believe we’re going to reach our goals. We are very committed to doing that.”
Pushback from climate activists
But now, nearly a year and half into Biden’s tenure, climate activists say the President isn’t doing enough.
Although the administration’s recent move to resume its drilling leases marks the first time the federal government has ever increased what companies pay to drill for oil and gas on public land, environmental groups have generally criticized the effort.
The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led progressive climate activist group, argued that Biden is going back on a campaign promise from when he told voters: “No more drilling on federal lands, period.” Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the organization, said in a statement that the decision will have political consequences, arguing that “Biden can’t get away with this disastrous climate decision.”
“The fact of the matter is that more drilling won’t solve high gas prices right now — so why is Biden breaking his campaign promise to stop drilling on public lands? This is why young people are doubting the political process altogether. If Biden wants to solve for voter turnout in 2022, he should actually deliver on the things he promised, not move farther away from them,” Prakash added.
Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told CNN that while the President’s latest move to protect older forests is “an important step in the right direction,” the move on drilling leases on public land “is locking us into more fossil fuel” for a decade or longer.
Still, Bapna expressed hope that the war has sparked global efforts to move away from oil dependence.
Americans’ perspective on gas prices and climate change
The apparent dual track of federal actions comes amid Americans’ continued concerns about both gas prices and the climate.
But as the administration has taken steps to alleviate consumer price hikes, including increases at the gas pump due to the war in Ukraine, Americans have started to feel slightly better about the economy.
However, consumers’ uptick in optimism is relative. April’s sentiment index remained below its January level, and lower than in any month in the past decade.
The survey also found that 78% of respondents who have faced recent extreme weather believe the effects of climate change are already unfolding, compared with 51% who had not.
The Manchin element
Crucial to Biden’s lofty climate plans is buy-in from Congress, especially from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — the moderate who sank the President’s ambitious climate agenda items that were part of the initial Build Back Better package.
Manchin has previously said he’s supportive of clean energy tax credits. But amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the chair of the Senate Energy Committee has also called for more fossil fuel production and infrastructure to be built in the US to help Europe move away from Russia’s natural gas.
Manchin’s office delayed a vote on Laura Daniel-Davis, the President’s pick to serve as the Department of the Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, citing the energy crisis brought on by the war. His office said at the time that the senator “would like to see more from the Department that it intends to get back to the business of leasing and production on federal lands and waters in a robust and responsible way.”
Biden’s climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, told “CNN Newsroom” on Thursday that there are “quiet discussions” ongoing with Manchin. McCarthy said she expects a package to move forward that would cut what American families pay for clean energy.
“There are things Joe Manchin wants, too. … We’ll keep working through those and have every intention to keep pushing Congress, because these are not just little things we need to add on. These are substantive efforts to actually make sure that we can grow jobs in this country,” she continued.
It’s still unclear whether a bill Manchin supports could also garner the support of House and Senate progressives, especially if he asks for guarantees around fossil fuel projects or infrastructure. Democrats have razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress and can’t afford to lose any votes.
CNN’s Ella Nielsen, Lauren Fox, Sam Fossum, Liz Stark and Anneken Tappe contributed to this report.