By Dean Gallea—
The previous U.S. President was known for rolling back environmental protections and instituting Executive Orders that set back progress towards mitigating climate change by years. We now have a new federal government – including a compliant Congress – that promises to repair of a lot of the damage that was done during the prior four years, support new, green-industry jobs and technologies, and go further than ever before in instituting needed regulations on polluting, carbon-based industries.
As a candidate, President Biden proposed a two trillion-dollar climate agenda that included provisions ranging from coordinating climate priorities in transportation infrastructure spending to rebooting “Cash for Clunkers” in the interest of modernizing fleets toward cleaner vehicles.
Biden’s first set of Executive Orders reads like an environmentalist’s wish-list. It was issued on his first day in office, and you can see here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/20/executive-order-protecting-public-health-and-environment-and-restoring-science-to-tackle-climate-crisis/.
Some highlights of policy-setting:
- Be guided by the best science in all decision-making
- Immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis
- Improve public health and protect our environment
- Ensure access to clean air and water
- Limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides
- Hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- Bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change
- Restore and expand our national treasures and monuments
- Prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.
Biden will sign an executive order establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, create an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and form a separate environmental justice office at the Justice Department. The order also directs the government to spend 40 percent of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities.
All executive departments and agencies are ordered to review decisions and policy changes made during the last four years that conflict with the new policies, and “consider suspending, revising, or rescinding [such] agency actions.” A preliminary list of actions is ordered to be submitted within 30 days.
Some of the specific prior actions that will likely be reversed are
- weakened guidelines for reducing leakage of methane – a greenhouse gas dozens of time more potent than CO2 – from petroleum wells and facilities of all types
- weakened appliance and building-efficiency standards
- delayed increases in vehicle fuel-efficiency
- rescinded Obama-era Clean-Air Act rulings
- reduction of protected areas in Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monuments
- opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum exploration and leasing
- approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Federal agencies are determining how expansive a ban on new oil and gas leases should be. The President will also create a task force for a government-wide action plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and issue a memorandum elevating climate change to a national security priority. It’s not clear, yet, how quickly the Administration will require GHG-emission reductions, but they plan to put a price on emissions to account for their societal costs.
As the NY Times pointed out, “Fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters accounts for almost a quarter of all U.S. CO2 emissions, and Biden campaigned on ending new drilling as a key to tackling climate change.”
It remains to be seen whether Congress will move to pass legislation to implement new environmental programs beyond simple reversal of executive orders. Without legislation, the administration will have to rely on the regulatory process to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and smokestacks and improve vehicle fuel efficiency, but that takes time too.
There are likely to be other progressive moves on environmental issues due to the improved atmosphere in the Federal government. As an example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it “supports a market-based approach to accelerate greenhouse gas emissions reductions across the U.S. economy.” An official with the Chamber explained that it considers a carbon tax or cap-and-trade to be a market-based approach. The pro-business Chamber is extremely influential with members of Congress, and the decision to back carbon pricing could open the door to more members from both parties supporting legislation like the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.