Biden’s domestic climate agenda must prioritize rural communities


By Cody Smith, former staff member

President-elect Joe Biden ran on a platform that promised to “Build Back Better” while also pledging to take the steps needed to address the harsh realities of a changing climate. For rural Americans, the level of investment required to secure the goals promised by the president-elect and his new team is long overdue. For too long, presidential administrations have given lip service to rural folks while failing to put forth the resources and policies required to facilitate economic and societal prosperity in rural communities.

As the new administration looks to inauguration day, we ask them to recognize reality; prioritizing rural America is non-negotiable if they are to successfully enact their domestic climate agenda.

President-elect Biden has said he will enact a “whole-of-government” approach to solving the climate problem. Given the direct impact of the Transportation, Energy, Agriculture, and Interior departments on rural residents of this country and the wide-reaching implications of regulatory decisions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the tools to create meaningful change in rural communities are within reach. 

In the final months of 2020, the incoming president announced his self-titled “Climate Team” and other nominations this month which included the selections of:

  • Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for energy secretary, 
  • New Mexico Rep. Deb. Haaland for interior secretary, 
  • Former Iowa Gov. and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for agriculture secretary,
  • Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg for transportation secretary, 
  • North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,
  • Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for national climate adviser. 

Many of these picks are historic in their own right, yet so are the challenges ahead of them.

Energy secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm faces a major hurdle when it comes to meeting the Biden team’s climate goals: the rapid deployment of wind, solar, storage, and other clean energy technologies. In addition, the Energy Department will need to work with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and regional transmission operators (RTOs) to overcome the steep challenge of expanding the electric grid to allow for the rapid deployment of renewable energy—this is critical if we are to ever reach net zero carbon emissions. We urge Sec. Granholm to prioritize the transparent development and release of taxpayer funded research such as the SEAMS study which outlines grid expansion needed for renewable deployment. We also urge the Secretary to empower her subordinates to prioritize consultation with local and state leaders in rural communities to ensure these new projects are sited responsibly and the residents of these communities receive the greatest possible return on their investment. 

Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland is poised to make historic progress to advance the transition to clean energy on federal land in rural areas of the country. Her groundbreaking appointment positions her to model best practices for land management on more than 450 million acres of public land managed by the Interior Department. We urge Sec. Haaland to identify and implement best management practices for clean energy siting, limiting fossil fuel development on public lands, and prioritizing environmental justice by elevating the often-overlooked voices of Native American nations. Sec. Haaland could set the tone and be an example for the world to follow when navigating a rapid transition to a clean energy economy. With the federal government’s example, states and local governments could replicate best practices for engaging with all rural stakeholders in these processes, including ranchers and farmers with an interest in public lands. We also urge Sec. Haaland to prioritize the inclusion of marginalized Americans, including black, brown, immigrant, and native communities in a just transition to a 21st Century economy.

Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack will lead a department with deep ties to and widespread influence on land use in rural America. The Department of Agriculture’s broad authority to prioritize rural development, conservation, renewable energy, and more presents a prime opportunity to empower rural stakeholders to have a seat at the table where climate and clean energy decisions are made. We urge Sec. Vilsack to give farmers and other rural leaders the resources they need to lead their communities through a clean energy transition. By prioritizing investments in farm conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality and Incentives Program, and others, the Department of Agriculture has the opportunity to leverage its resources to include farmers as a central part of the climate solution while building resiliency to its resulting impacts, like flooding. In addition, programs, such as the Renewable Energy for America Program and the USDA’s Rural Utility Service, can put rural electric cooperatives, farmers, and local leaders in the driver’s seat when charting a path forward in addressing climate change and decreasing energy costs in rural America. 

Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg will face the task of transforming a network of more than 46,876 miles of interstate highways, bridges, and fueling stations that were designed for internal combustion engines and is massive in scale. We urge Sec. Buttigieg to prioritize an equitable expansion of electric vehicle charging infrastructure that empowers rural communities to play a key role in scaling up the adoption of this carbon-reducing technology. Other investments in public transportation, such as high-speed rail and other methods, should take special care to prevent the omission of rural people and the communities they live in. As we look to transition to a lower emission transportation system, jobs and opportunity in rural communities should be a top priority.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Nominee Micheal Regan is set to lead an agency with far-reaching regulatory impact on the rural landscape. From implementing the Clean Water Act and leading on water quality issues across the nation to regulating the power sector, the EPA should carefully contemplate the impact of regulatory decision making on farmers and rural energy workers. We urge Administrator Regan to include rural voices in all conversations to ensure that any decisions made to implement government-led solutions to climate challenge are fair and successful. Complex challenges, such as water quality, water access, flooding, and managing air pollution, can have a significant impact on rural life and should be contemplated in a systematic and intentional manner that includes rural stakeholders.

National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy will oversee the domestic climate policy priorities of the Biden administration. As the leader who will navigate the complex federal agency structure, coordinate legislative efforts with Congress, and lead the dialogue with the public on the climate challenge, we urge Adviser McCarthy to take meaningful and lasting steps to amplify rural voices in the nation’s domestic climate policy agenda.  As the de facto leader of the nation’s climate agenda, Adviser McCarthy should prioritize a whole-of-government approach that is also committed to hearing from the whole of the country, including the diverse rural perspectives that are required to ensure a just and equitable clean energy transition. Rural communities are hungry for economic opportunity and investment and with the right leadership, we can leverage the nation’s climate and clean energy goals as an overdue investment in rural America.

When we look back in four years, rural America will be a litmus test of success for the government’s renewed emphasis on climate change. If successful, rural communities will see continued, but accelerated expansion of renewable energy projects that also bring jobs and tax revenue. Wind and solar energy projects, in conjunction with investments in the electric transmission grid, are imperative to this growth. If well executed, the expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure across the country will include charging stations in the small communities currently fueling the commerce of the nation. If we are truly to “Build Back Better” while meeting the urgent challenges presented by a changing climate, rural America should see prosperity and investments that have been long overdue.