OPINION: US President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of John Kerry as the incoming administration’s special presidential envoy on climate change marks a significant shift in the country’s approach to carbon emissions and the importance the energy transition will have in policy decisions at the White House.


Gain valuable insight into the global oil and gas industry's energy transition from Accelerate, the new weekly newsletter from Upstream and Recharge.
Sign up here.

Far from a ceremonial role, Kerry will have a seat on the National Security Council and his official title suggests he will report directly to Biden.

“For the first time ever, there will be a principal on the National Security Council who will make sure climate change is on the agenda in the Situation Room," Biden said when announcing the appointment, before ticking off an abbreviated list of Kerry’s accomplishments: former secretary of state who helped negotiate the Paris Agreement; the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee; and a climate champion during his long tenure in the Senate.

“The fact that I have picked the one person who is all of these things speaks unambiguously to my commitment,” Biden said.

Kerry is certain to push for the US to rejoin the Paris accord and will likely try to bring the country more in line with its European allies on issues related to carbon emissions and electrification of transportation networks.

Contenders emerge

What Kerry’s appointment means in practical terms for the US oil and gas industry, however, will be less consequential than who Biden picks to head the departments of Energy and the Interior, which manages the country’s natural resources.

Biden had yet to submit names for the top spots as Upstream went to press, but a shortlist of contenders had emerged — along with some pushback from environmental activists and lawmakers on the left who are eager to assert their influence.

Several veterans of former Democratic administrations are said to be in the running to lead the Department of Energy. These include Ernest Moniz, former president Barack Obama’s second energy secretary; Arun Majumdar, a former Obama energy official and influential Biden advisor; and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, another Biden advisor who served in the upper ranks of Obama’s Energy Department.

Possible interior secretary nominees include two New Mexicans, US Representative Deb Haaland and former Interior undersecretary Michael Connor.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Carol Moseley Braun, a former senator from Illinois, are also said to be under consideration.

Divided Senate

Unlike Kerry, the nominees for top agency positions — and any sweeping legislation to address climate change, such as a carbon emissions tax — will need the approval of a divided Senate.

There are some actions Biden can take without the opposition’s assent, including the reinstatement of aggressive methane emission limits and a ban on new exploration leases on public lands and waters.

Bigger initiatives, such as massive green infrastructure spending, will be a tougher sell, but Biden clearly hopes his decades in Washington will help him bring at least a few Republican senators on board.

He seems open to the idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel and will be keen to keep employment figures up as he manages the post-coronavirus pandemic economy.

A pragmatic and measured energy transition policy could benefit the industry, most of which has already seen the writing on the wall and retooled strategies for a low-carbon future.

The selection of Kerry seems canny. He is respected by many on the left and the right and, crucially, by America’s allies, who can be assured that the US is serious about its role in tackling the climate challenge.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)