Environmental advocates never expected to find themselves in this position.
As a candidate, President Biden promised sweeping action to tackle a warming planet. He branded climate change as the “No. 1 issue facing humanity,” and voters delivered him a Democratic-controlled Congress.
But 15 months later, climate activists are furious.
They’re still fighting for the same policies they were on Mr. Biden’s first day in office and seeing him roll back the meager wins they thought they scored. Many now question Mr. Biden’s commitment to climate change.
“Biden needs to have a backbone,” Kat Maier, national coordinator of the youth-led climate action group Fridays for Future, said in an interview.
The organization is one of the dozens of Democratic-allied groups that will participate in rallies across the country over the weekend in observance of Earth Day. They hope to crank up the pressure on Mr. Biden and other elected leaders at all levels of government to move more aggressively to combat climate change.
The activists are fuming that Mr. Biden slid backward in the climate fight, resuming federal lease sales for fossil fuel drilling and waiving an environmental restriction to sell cheaper ethanol-based gas. These moves are meant to blunt high prices at the pump.
They call it Band-Aids for political bruises that jeopardize long-term climate goals.
“If Biden actually follows through on his campaign promises and listens to the American people — and for that matter, people around the world — he would not have walked the middle of the road and then felt the pressure to pull back and go in the other direction just because of elections, or whatever he’s afraid of,” Ms. Maier said.
Mr. Biden will mark Earth Day on Friday in Seattle, where he will speak about the need to bolster the nation’s resilience to climate threats and to rapidly deploy more clean energy, according to the White House.
He will also call for congressional action and highlight recent steps designed to lower gas prices, including a historic release of 180 million barrels of oil from emergency reserves, waiving the restriction to sell cheaper E-15 gas in the summer and resuming lease sales on federal lands for new oil and natural gas drilling.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called instead for more urgent and stronger action on climate change.
“We must immediately divest from dirty fossil fuels, and quickly and equitably transition to a zero-emissions and 100% clean energy economy that leaves nobody behind,” she said in a statement.
The president’s event will cap off a week of administration officials crisscrossing the country in advance of Earth Day to promote the climate change spending included in a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.
“The environmental challenges of our time call for historic action, and we intend to meet the moment,” Mr. Biden said in a proclamation Thursday. “That is why my administration has launched the most ambitious environmental and climate agenda in history.”
Minutes later, the White House boasted that it had awarded contracts for 30 million barrels of oil it put up for sale as part of the strategic release.
Among his many environmental promises, Mr. Biden pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, a goal that seems increasingly unfeasible.
Climate advocates are anything but prepared to get in line to applaud the president. The sentiment on his tenure is “mixed,” said Brooke Harper, a campaigns specialist with the international environmental organization 350.org.
“A lot of us would probably give Biden the grade of a C, with the caveat that he needs a Congress that’s able to work with him and put measures across the finish line,” she told The Washington Times.
Environmental groups say Mr. Biden’s decision on federal lease sales for drilling is one of his most egregious backslides. It broke a top campaign promise to end the practice once and for all. The move was condemned by the left and the right, the latter of which was frustrated by increased royalty fees and a limited number of leases.
His successes, such as rejoining the Paris climate accord, creating new climate positions in the administration, reversing Trump-era policies, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and strengthening vehicle emissions standards, pale in comparison with his failures, such as the demise of his $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate bill and his recent actions to lower gas prices, advocates said.
Ms. Harper said the president’s “strong, ambitious plans and executive orders” have now been partially offset by “taking us steps back.”
Other environmental activists who are more closely allied with the White House said the disappointment with Mr. Biden is overhyped in the news media and that high energy costs will hasten the switch to clean energy.
“We’re a little more optimistic than people might think we are,” said David Kieve, president of the Environmental Defense Fund Action and Mr. Biden’s former public engagement director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Mr. Kieve is married to White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield.
“I think there’s an understanding out there — and I hope the president gives voice to it — that in the long term, the only way for us to achieve true energy independence is to make that transition to clean energy faster,” he said.
Thanks to all-time high gas prices, Mr. Biden has found himself at a crossroads with climate activists, who were among his most fervent supporters.
On the one hand, advocates say, it is now or never to implement sweeping overhauls of U.S. energy policy because Democrats’ days in power are likely numbered with the impending midterm elections.
On the other, some argue, by immediately addressing high energy costs, the president is increasing the party’s chances to maintain as much control of Washington as possible to advance the climate agenda.
The White House has been on the defensive lately. Press secretary Jen Psaki blamed the decision to resume federal lease sales on a court injunction that “is forcing our hand.” Despite bowing to pressure from the oil industry and consumers to increase oil production, Ms. Psaki said, the president is still devoted to combating climate change.
“These leases are not in line with our policy or the president’s view,” she told reporters. “The president remains committed. Addressing the climate crisis is one of the four pillars that he ran on as president and that he will continue to fight for.”