As the dust settles on the 2020 US election, much remains uncertain, but the general outcome is clear: Joe Biden has won and will become president in January. This is mostly good news from a climate change and Canadian perspective. But there are still many outstanding issues that will need to be resolved.
Biden’s inauguration as the 46th US president represents a sea change for both climate and in the Arctic from the policies enacted by the Trump Administration. On climate change, Trump has infamously played the part of spoiler and denier: calling it a Chinese hoax, slashing federal funding for climate research and removing scientific data from government websites.
His administration also eliminated Obama-era policies and regulations such as the Clean Power Plan along with tighter auto emissions standards, withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, opened new federal lands to oil and gas exploration and propped up the ailing American coal industry. All in all, witnessing the rollback of US climate and energy policy has made it a tough four years for those worried about the climate crisis.
Arctic policy is fundamentally tied to climate change, so many of these decisions have northern consequences. But specific Trump policies toward the Arctic, particularly Alaska, demonstrate the same pattern.
Trump reversed a moratorium on offshore Arctic oil and gas drilling. He cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget for environmental programs, clean drinking water, and wastewater in Alaska. His administration approved a destructive new highway to enable more extractive industry in northern Alaska. Finally, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was opened to oil and gas exploration.
Internationally, 2019 marked the first time the eight-member Arctic Council failed to issue a joint declaration after its annual ministerial meeting. Instead, the US rejected the draft declaration because it mentioned climate change. The same year, the United States reversed 30 years of cooperative disagreement with Canada by characterizing the latter’s legal claims to the Northwest Passage as “illegitimate,” and shocked Denmark when Trump offered to buy Greenland without consulting either country.
Meanwhile, diplomatic tensions between the United States and Russia, the most powerful Arctic state, and the US and China, an emerging global power that has made major investments in the circumpolar region, have undermined cooperation. Climate and Arctic policy may not have been top of mind for many over the last four years, but they have not escaped the effects of the Trump presidency.
So, what will change under the Biden Administration, and what are the ramifications for Canada? The answers are mostly good from a climate and Canadian perspective, though not entirely. Biden has called climate change a threat to national security, and committed to re-joining the Paris Agreement. He has said the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for addressing climate change and he has promised to end oil and gas extraction, including hydraulic fracking, on public lands.
Biden has also called for a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies and promised a “clean energy revolution” leading to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. His platform calls for greater hemispheric cooperation to reduce emissions, facilitate green investment and spur clean energy growth, which is all reflected in the Biden-Harris transition team’s desire to “build back better” once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control.
How much he can achieve will depend on which party wins control of the US Senate, which won’t be determined until run-off elections are held in January 2021. But climate change was an unexpectedly high profile issue in the 2020 election, and Biden has overcome doubts about his environmental record to champion the most ambitious climate change platform in presidential history. This makes it unlikely he will abandon or downgrade the issue after taking office, even if a hostile Republican Senate forces him to act through executive orders as Barack Obama did for much of his presidency.
In the Arctic, Biden will reinstate the ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, work to expand that moratorium globally, permanently protect ANWR, restore the Arctic Council’s consensus on climate change, and work with the other member-states to address short-lived climate-forcing pollutants like methane and black carbon. In many ways, Biden’s climate and Arctic platform resembles a promise to reset the clock to before Trump took office.
When the United States assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, it adopted three priorities: improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities; Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; and addressing the impacts of climate change. In the final year of his presidency, Obama released two joint statements with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlining a bilateral Arctic vision for clean energy, economic cooperation and climate change mitigation and adaptation. This agenda will likely be restored when Biden takes office, buoyed by modest policy progress such as the Arctic High Seas Fisheries Agreement, the possibility of a Democratic senator elected in Alaska and greater public urgency around the issue of climate change.
Biden’s Arctic agenda will find eager support from the Trudeau government, whose own Arctic policy has languished without a cooperative American partner and was largely sidelined by the unanticipated need to focus on issues such as the renegotiation of NAFTA.
While most of these developments are good news for Canada, there will be points of friction, too.
On banning offshore drilling, supporting multilateral cooperation, promoting sustainable economic development, and continental defence issues such as replacing NORAD’s aging North Warning System across the High Arctic, Canada and the incoming Biden Administration stand to make substantial, and potentially rapid, progress in implementing new policies. Longstanding bilateral disagreements such as the legal status of the Northwest Passage and the maritime boundary in the Beaufort Sea are unlikely to be resolved, but Biden will reaffirm the 1988 Canada-US Northwest Passage Agreement and restore the status quo ante on Canada-US Arctic cooperation.
Biden also says he will use the Arctic Council as a platform to highlight bad Russian behaviour and curb its militarization of the Arctic, a dubious proposition that may nonetheless win support from the Trudeau government, which has maintained the Harper government’s strong stance against Russia’s aggressive foreign policy behaviour.
While most of these developments are good news for Canada, there will be points of friction, too. As the United States’ closest continental trading partner, Canada stands to benefit from the growth of an integrated clean energy economy and joint emission standards for manufacturing, automobiles, and electricity generation. Indeed, this will help address one of the major objections to emission reductions north of the border, namely that Canada cannot afford to make itself uncompetitive by getting too far ahead of climate policy in the United States.
However, Biden has indicated he will rescind approval of the Keystone XL bitumen pipeline to the US Gulf Coast, a project restored by Trump that Obama twice vetoed as president, hampering Alberta’s hopes of improving access to global energy consumers.
Opinion is divided over whether, on balance, the Biden presidency will be good or bad for Canada’s oil sector. Though vetoing Keystone may cost short-term construction jobs and further weaken investor confidence in the oil patch, Biden’s domestic policies may reduce American fossil fuel output and help alleviate the over-supply that has depressed global oil prices. This would increase prices for Canadian producers and improve the profitability of other projects under construction, such as the Transmountain pipeline expansion.
Looking ahead, however, Biden’s promise to “transition away from the oil industry” will place significant pressure on Canadian policy-makers to develop a plan to do the same. This will inflame acrimonious disagreements over the future of Canada’s oil and gas sector. Provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland that already feel beset by the confluence of low prices, over-supply, unfunded environmental liabilities and increased federal taxation and regulation will likely continue to resist transitioning to a lower-carbon economy.
Meanwhile, provinces like British Columbia and New Brunswick, which have made major bets on natural gas as a future export commodity will face increased pressure to change course. The combination of unfavourable market conditions, popular and legal opposition to new fossil fuel projects, a global energy transformation that is already well underway and the recognized need for Canada to do more to meet its Paris emissions targets suggest strong headwinds for supporters of Canadian oil and gas.
But such disruption and the decline of oil and gas is inevitable and has been long anticipated. In the Arctic, and for climate and energy policy in general, Biden’s election may finally end the impasse over the pace and scale of economic transformation necessary to achieve greater sustainability and prevent runaway environmental disruption. With renewed American leadership in the fight against climate change, Canada will be able to make better progress toward its own policy goals and may ultimately have little choice.