WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Transportation, vowed to make climate change a top priority during his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.
But that raises a question: How much can a transportation secretary realistically do to reduce emissions from America’s vast fleet of cars, trucks and airplanes — all of which the agency oversees, to varying degrees?
Transportation now accounts for one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gases each year. And the sector has been stubbornly difficult to clean up, as the vast majority of Americans remains deeply dependent on gasoline-fueled vehicles to get around each day.
The federal agency has a number of powerful policy levers that could be used to try to change that. One strategy might be to encourage state governments to rethink how they design their roadways and mass transit systems, nudging the United States away from its reliance on automobile travel. Another is to help ratchet up fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and trucks and promote cleaner electric vehicles.
But there are also important constraints: Mr. Buttigieg would most likely need to persuade lawmakers to pass major new legislation if he hopes to significantly transform how the country gets around. That could prove to be a political minefield.
Here’s a look at what the Transportation Department could do on climate policy.
Rethink Transportation Grants
Most of the department’s spending on roads and public transit, which totaled about $47 billion last year, is dictated by strict formulas set by Congress.
But not all of it.
The department also doles out $1 billion or so each year in competitive grants that help states and cities fund individual transportation projects. Mr. Buttigieg would have considerable leeway to reshape these grant programs fairly quickly, experts said.
The Trump administration often awarded grants to road projects that encouraged car travel, such as $34.6 million for a highway interchange to support a new National Football League facility in South Carolina. A more climate-focused agency, by contrast, could announce it was looking for proposals that offered alternatives to driving, such as bus or bike projects.
“It’s a small pot of money, but it sends a powerful signal to states and cities,” said Paul Lewis, vice president for policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation. “And I’d expect the new administration to place a greater emphasis on climate-friendly projects.”
Make States Measure Emissions
Individual states — not the federal government — typically have final say over how they spend billions of federal dollars each year to build or repair roads and public transit.
Nevertheless, the Transportation Department could require states to start tracking the greenhouse gas emissions produced by their transportation systems and set targets for reducing those emissions over time. While states would not be required to cut their emissions, a little transparency could go a long way.
“Right now, we’re not even measuring greenhouse gas emissions and using that to drive project choices,” said Kevin DeGood, director for infrastructure policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, which has recommended the policy change.
The department could also do more to help states and cities identify roads and bridges at risk of being damaged by rising sea levels and other extreme weather caused by climate change, Mr. DeGood said.
Mandate Cleaner Vehicles
By law, the Transportation Department works with the Environmental Protection Agency to craft federal fuel economy standards, which require new cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks sold in the United States to use less gasoline over time.
The Obama administration used this authority to require that automakers improve the efficiency of their fleets by 5 percent annually, on average, for model years 2021 to 2026. The Trump administration weakened that to 1.5 percent per year. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden asked the two agencies to revisit that decision and propose new, presumably more ambitious rules by July.
The Transportation Department will have considerable input into those rules, which could potentially be designed to encourage automakers to sell more cleaner electric vehicles. One challenge, though, is that more Americans are buying S.U.V.s, which has caused overall fuel economy to stagnate.
Mr. Biden has also set a goal of installing 500,000 new charging stations for electric vehicles in the next decade. Achieving that daunting goal would most likely require Congress to authorize billions of dollars in new spending. The Transportation Department could, however, help shape how and where those chargers get built.
Lend a Hand to Public Transit
America’s public transit agencies are in dire financial shape as the coronavirus outbreak has kept riders away. Without significant federal aid, experts have warned, bus and subway systems could collapse, leaving the country even more dependent on polluting personal cars and S.U.V.s once the pandemic subsides.
This is primarily a job for Congress: Lawmakers approved $14 billion in transit aid last December, and Mr. Biden has proposed another $20 billion as he seeks new recovery legislation.
But the Transportation Department will very likely be closely involved in helping transit agencies back on their feet.
“The department can do a lot to work with cities to figure out how to help transit run more reliably and make sure services are going to communities that need it most,” said Ann Shikany, an infrastructure expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Push Congress for New Laws
Ultimately, experts said, it will be tough to significantly reduce America’s vehicle emissions unless Congress steps in to revamp federal transportation funding.
An opportunity is coming up: The current round of federal highway spending is set to expire later this year.
Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have already proposed an array of reforms that could potentially reduce emissions from the transportation sector. Ideas include boosting the total amount of money available for mass transit and electric vehicle infrastructure, encouraging biking and walking, and imposing new climate conditions on the existing formulas for highway spending.
Still, any changes are likely to prove contentious, particularly in a closely divided Senate.
“When you start shifting funds around, some states start gaining and some states start losing,” said Mr. Lewis, of the Eno Center for Transportation. “That means huge reforms can face a prolonged political fight.”