New year, new president

How Will the Biden Administration Impact the Bayou City?

Four things to know about what a new president will—and will not—mean for Houston.

By Dianna Wray January 19, 2021 Published in the December 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine


President-elect Joe Biden speaks Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware.

While Texas didn’t go blue in November, former Vice President Joe Biden is still set to be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on January 20. Some may be wondering what that is going to mean for us here in the Bayou City, but we’ve got you covered:

So what does the coming Biden Administration mean for Houston? 

Initially, nothing much. The expectation is that at first Biden—as he has already stated numerous times—will focus on broad issues, most pressingly dealing with Covid-19, fighting the economic downturn, and passing a stimulus package (if the federal government hasn’t already passed a follow-up). “I don’t think you’ll see massive changes to start with,” UH political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus says. “He’s going to have nationwide issues to deal with at first.”

But how will Biden’s presidency likely end up playing out for the energy industry?

Houston, despite all claims to the contrary, is still very much an energy-centric city, as demonstrated by the latest oil downturn, due to the pandemic, which has prompted thousands of layoffs and even saw energy behemoth ExxonMobil announce a round of layoffs, with about 1,700 of them occurring right here. Biden has already spoken out against fracking, a move in the final presidential debate last October that likely spooked some Houston voters in the lead-up to Election Day, and that may still have some nervous about how he’ll approach the oil and gas industry once he’s officially Commander in Chief.

But those with the jitters should remember that Biden has historically been a moderate who favors small, gradual steps versus dramatic, overnight overhauls. Although Biden has stated he will re-enlist the United States in the Paris Climate Accords the day he is sworn into office, he’s never been the type to go for heavy-duty, far-left changes. And if the Dems don’t ultimately take the U.S. Senate majority, even the Biden Green New Deal (a more moderate iteration of the 2019 Congressional Democratic proposals) is expected to be swapped out in favor of simply undoing the Trump Administration’s executive orders and regulatory rewrites that have eased up pollution requirements and ignored climate change, at least for starters.

Okay … but what will all of that actually mean, oil-wise?

Either way, while Biden will likely push energy companies to make some adjustments and to start to deal with the environmental concerns that have been being raised about oil and gas with increasing frequency in recent years, the changes that are coming to various aspects of the industry (like those reinstituted regulations and fuel efficiency standards) are not going to be a surprise to the companies impacted.

“The Biden Administration will probably engage in some pretty hard love for energy companies, requiring them to shift their focus in a way that those companies probably should have years ago, but have been reluctant to fully commit to,” Rottinghaus says. “However, my sense is that a lot of those companies have been moving in that direction already, quietly, because they see the value, and the money, frankly, in that diversity. They’ve wanted to move in that direction, but they need the political cover to explain it to their shareholders and get there.”

And what about the fact that Texas was in play for 2020?

Meanwhile, Harris County may well be a player on the national stage in elections to come. Under the direction of Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, Harris County voters shattered previous voter turnout records, with more than 1.5 million people casting ballots by the end of Election Day, a development that led to serious talk of Texas as a swing state. Althoug the Texas split ended up being more decisively for the GOP (President Donald Trump ultimately won the state by roughly 52 percent) than predicted Harris County’s strong voter turnout demonstrated a powerful force, one Democrats and Republicans alike may well seek to enlist on their behalf in the coming years. So prepare for plenty of facetime with brand-name politicians in 2022 and 2024, because Houston stands to become as important as Miami or Philadelphia in the coming electoral years.

“For a long time, spending money in Texas was like buying fool’s gold,” Rottinghaus says. “It was shiny and didn’t have real value. But it’s not much of a stretch to say that Texas being in play at the presidential level is a real change to the electoral map, and this could change how campaigns and resources are devoted to the state in the coming years.”