As the largest greenhouse-gas emitting sector in the U.S., the transportation system must be overhauled in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That means presumptive Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has a big task ahead of him.
But he won’t be alone in this task; President Biden is committing to center climate in his approach to governance, including other federal agencies. Problems facing our transportation system already will likely be compounded by the budget crisis facing public transit agencies due to the pandemic-driven drop in ridership. Democratic control of the House and Senate make it likely some action will be taken in Congress to help these priorities, but it must be swift and commensurate with the problem.
The Biden-Harris administration can help lower emissions while also improving transportation equity and access, but it will take coordination among multiple agencies. Presumptive Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will be an MVP teammate for Buttigieg to have in this decarbonization race. The duo can set their agencies to work collaboratively to prioritize zero-emission technology and infrastructure, public transportation funding and technology, and improved access to new mobility technologies that will get us around without frying the planet. The choices of Pete Buttigieg and Jennifer Granholm to head DOT and DOE respectively signal that electrification of transportation is a top priority. As former governor of Michigan, Granholm helped then-Vice President Biden revive the auto industry while making huge investments in green jobs and clean energy. As mayor of South Bend and during his presidential campaign, Buttigieg has emphasized the importance of transitioning to electric vehicles and the importance of reducing emissions from transportation.
While DOT is obviously responsible for improving our transportation system, DOE plays an important role through the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), mainly in the Sustainable Transportation Office. To reduce carbon emissions from transportation, the federal government will need to implement multiple policy priorities with coordination among agencies throughout the Biden administration (likely the role of the White House’s Office of Domestic Climate Policy or Council on Environmental Quality). These priorities include decarbonizing transportation through investment in electrification and other zero-emission technology, but also improving transportation equity by reducing barriers to access, reducing our dependence on personal vehicles, and improving the infrastructure we already have rather than building and expanding highways.
Biden’s choice of Pete Buttigieg for secretary of transportation came as a surprise to many, but further examination of what DOT does and his record as mayor of South Bend and his presidential campaign platform give some hints as to how his priorities on transportation aligned perfectly with the Biden-Harris plans. While Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s tweet congratulating Mayor Pete and pointing out his local government experience may have seemed like a Minnesota-nice passive-aggressive dig, that experience does uniquely prepare him to make decisions that have the most immediate impact on local transportation systems. He will undoubtedly reinstate regulations and refocus the department’s priorities on safety, sustainability, and efficiency of our transportation system. This approach is in contrast to his predecessor Secretary Elaine Chao who focused on removing regulations, redirected grants from pedestrians to cars, and didn’t implement any new safety regulations.
Increasing electric vehicle deployment is a top priority on the Biden-Harris campaign website and White House page, and one of Biden’s early announcements was his intent to electrify the U.S. government fleet. Building out new EV infrastructure and creating EV manufacturing jobs is one of the main focuses for the president’s economic recovery plan, which would truly be “building back better.” The selection of Granholm as the secretary of energy further signals that electric vehicles will be a focus. As governor of Michigan, Granholm was a key official in the auto industry recovery that Vice President Biden and President Obama orchestrated to help it recover from the Great Recession.
She spearheaded the development of incentives for the “big three” automakers to invest in battery storage and other innovative technology. She also signed one of Michigan’s first-ever executive orders to require the state to develop an environmental justice plan, a sign DOE could prioritize energy and environmental justice. In her confirmation hearing, she demonstrated an in-depth understanding of and enthusiasm for electric vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, and how that can be leveraged to create new clean jobs.
Buttigieg and Granholm’s departments will be largely responsible for meeting Biden’s bold goals to decarbonize transportation, including installing half a million EV chargers by 2030. Research conducted through DOE’s national labs has and will continue to advance the technologies needed to improve vehicle efficiency, reduce battery cost, and provide recommendations for installing charging infrastructure for EVs. DOT can utilize those research results to provide funding and directives to local and state governments, as well as regulations for EV infrastructure that are based on science.
In a flurry of executive orders signed this week, President Biden instructed the government to prioritize putting 40% of its clean energy benefits into frontline communities. DOT controls where some transportation funds are invested (the rest are mandated by Congress), and can address much of the environmental racism that has been perpetuated by the transportation system using that power, going well beyond EV infrastructure to improve roads and highways and expand access to affordable public transit. Investments in EVs and public transit will benefit frontline communities the most from the reduction in particulate emissions and nitrogen oxide, which have been shown to exacerbate health issues and impacts of diseases like covid-19.
However, deciding how and where to invest these funds will require research and community engagement from the people impacted most by it. DOT and DOE can utilize grants to work with community organizations and researchers to decide best practices for investing funds and creating agency programs that will benefit frontline communities with clean transportation access and reducing environmental burdens. DOT can also mandate state and local DOTs conduct emissions inventories and set reduction goals as requirements for receiving federal funds, providing additional avenues to reduce emissions and uneven access to transit.
Granholm’s record signals that DOE priorities will shift towards increased investment in EERE and other innovative clean energy technology programs after Biden campaigned on increasing spending on renewable power and energy efficiency to $2 trillion; a large chunk of that might be designated to the Vehicle Technologies Office and Advanced Manufacturing Office, which have programs developing battery technology and more efficient vehicle technology and transportation systems (Trump unsuccessfully proposed cutting more than 80% of the budget for these offices every year he was in office). Increases in spending are far more likely with a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Pete Buttigieg could work together with Granholm to prioritize research supporting the implementation of zero-emission transportation technologies quickly, including light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicles, aviation, rail, and the charging and refueling infrastructure required. DOE has researchers working on increasing the life and sustainability of batteries and the critical materials needed for them, understanding the full life-cycle implications of replacing combustion vehicles with electric ones, and sustainable biofuels and hydrogen that might be critical for aviation and heavy-duty vehicles. This work will inform DOT on what regulations and requirements to put into place for infrastructure investment.
The Biden administration will need to implement strong incentives and regulatory policies to make a meaningful reduction in transportation emissions. Congress and the Biden administration can implement policies similar to the ones California (and other states) have enacted, like the Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate, Clean Miles Standard, Innovative Clean Transit, and Low-Carbon Fuels Standard. They can also extend the EV Tax credit that expired at the end of the year, and utilize other recommended incentives for consumers (while prioritizing frontline communities) to increase awareness and access to zero-emissions transportation. A volunteer group of clean energy professionals compiled comprehensive policy recommendations around clean energy and transportation which give some insight into what the priorities of the administration could be. (Full disclosure: I wrote and edited some of these recommendations.)
DOT apportions funds to state and local governments based on how much revenue is generated and what priorities and guidelines the agency sets. It is likely that DOT will set those priorities based on research that DOE and other agencies and researchers present from programs like the Clean Cities Coalition Network on the emissions and equity impacts of road expansion, transit systems, and active transportation options. Buttigieg is also acutely aware of the problems with the funding shortfalls for the Highway Trust Fund. He said during the presidential primary and his confirmation hearing that he would direct DOT to implement a study of a Road User Charge, or Mileage-Based Fee to replace the fuel tax, which has not been raised since 1993, resulting in a massive funding shortage and is relatively regressive. Buttigieg has also indicated that he intends to prioritize correcting the systemic racist policies like redlining and highway placement that have perpetuated inequality through the transportation system.
In addition to the energy that drives our cars, buses, and goods, there are wide-ranging implications of our evolving transportation system to more app-based services and information, and the impending transition to automated vehicles. White House climate advisors and presumptive secretaries must fully research and investigate the equity, safety, and emissions implications of automated vehicles. In contrast the Trump administration mostly side-stepped any actions on even ensuring safety in this new technology, vowing not to regulate them, which has largely left states and cities to regulate and automakers catering to multiple strategies and guessing what will happen federally. It’s yet another area we could see DOT and DOE collaborate that could further set the future of transportation on a path that looks very different from its present course.
Transportation is rapidly evolving, and unfortunately, the priorities of the last four years have left it the largest emitting sector in the country and growing. Now led by Pete Buttigieg and Jennifer Granholm, the DOT, DOE, and the Biden White House’s Office of Domestic Climate Policy can work together to implement policy priorities that invest in the areas research shows to be the best shot for quickly and equitably decarbonizing the transportation sector.
Kelly L. Fleming is a policy analyst at UC Davis in the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, and a 2019 alumni of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellowship Program. Prior, she served as a science policy fellow at the US Department of Energy, and on the leadership board of 500 Women Scientists. She has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Washington and a BS in chemical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.