A new Presidential Administration brings with it new people, priorities, actions, and policies. Presidents’ approaches to environmental policy, in particular, have oscillated drastically during the last several administrations depending on which party the then-President identified with. This oscillation is so familiar to us it may feel like a given - but it wasn’t always this way. Our country's landmark environmental laws that were passed in the 1970s, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and significant amendments to the Clean Water Act were passed under the Republican administration of President Nixon, and it was under George Herbert Walker Bush that the nation finally instituted policy to tackle the acid rain problem. Today, the Biden Administration is turning the country once again to advancing environmental policy.
Among the most immediate of the actions a President can take are Executive Orders: signed directives from the President which manage operations of our federal government. As of March 25th, 2021 President Biden has signed no less than 37 executive orders. Two of these aim at directly addressing the Climate Crisis, and offer insight into the Biden Administration's larger approach to environmental issues.
The first of these, the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis, was signed on January 20th, 2021.
Broadly, this directive orders executive departments and agencies to “immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis,” or more concretely to review all actions, regulations, and policies adopted in the last four years that are not in agreement with the policy of the new administration.
Major directives in this order include:
- Revoking the March 2019 Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
- Putting a temporary moratorium on federal implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program - more commonly known as drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or simply “drilling in the arctic” - and requiring a new environmental impact analysis.
- Restoring Executive Order 13754, which orders the withdrawal of certain offshore areas in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling.
The order also revokes Executive Order 13766 of January 24, 2017 which pushed through approvals for infrastructure projects by rolling back required environmental reviews, revokes Executive Order 13778 of February 28, 2017 (the rule that narrowed the definition and reach of the “Waters of the United States” Rule and thus cut back on federal protection of waterways), and orders the consideration of restoring monument boundaries to their locations as of January 20th, 2017. Additionally, the order establishes the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, which will be directed to publish social cost of carbon (SCC), social cost of nitrous oxide (SCN), and social cost of methane (SCM) estimates, that is “estimates of the monetized damages associated with incremental increases in greenhouse gas emissions.” The working group will also advise the president on related matters.
The second major climate-oriented order, the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, was signed on January 27, 2021. Somewhat lengthier, this order aims to, among other things, institute a government-wide approach to addressing the climate crisis, empower workers, secure environmental justice, and spur economic opportunity.
Major directives included in this order include:
- The development of a climate finance plan, to
- Promote the protection of critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks, including through market-based mechanisms, and
- Identify steps the United States can take toward ending the international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy.
- The establishment of a National Climate Taskforce, chaired by a National Climate Advisor.
- Requiring agencies to create Climate Action Plans and make those plans as well as related annual progress reports public.
- Ordering the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to seek to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies from the budget request for Fiscal Year 2022 and onward.
- The creation of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative, to mobilize young conservation workers and create accessible training opportunities and good jobs.
- The creation of the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, which will seek to coordinate federal resources to revitalize the economies of coal, oil and gas, and powerplant communities as well as develop strategies to implement economic and social recovery in these communities.
The future actions of this working group in particular may have positive effects for Central and Southern Illinois Communities.
The order asserts the following goals:
- A carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035
- Clean and zero-emission vehicles for Federal, State, local, and Tribal government fleets, including vehicles of the United States Postal Service
- Doubling of offshore wind power generation by 2030
- Conserving at least 30% of our lands and waters by 2030
…and it orders the creation of the following tools:
- A community notification program to monitor and provide real-time data to the public on current environmental pollution in frontline and fenceline
- A geospatial Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool which will publish interactive maps highlighting disadvantaged communities annually.
- And - possibly - the creation of a federal geographic mapping service that can facilitate public access to climate-related information that will assist federal, state, local, and tribal governments in climate planning and resilience activities.
The Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad includes still more provisions, though, such as creating the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and appointing a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.
In addition to these two executive orders, President Biden released a statement on January 20th, 2021 in which he accepted the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States.
These days, advancing environmental policy is often pursued in tandem with job creation (for a state-level example, see the Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act, or CEJA) and Biden’s approach holds up to that expectation. It also aims to revitalize coal, oil, and gas communities, so that the hard-working people in these communities do not get left behind as the world shifts towards the clean energy sources that we need to embrace to ensure health and security for our children and grandchildren. Rightly included in this revitalization effort, which aims for clean energy communities with well-paying union jobs, are historically marginalized and overburdened communities.
It is important to remember that policies put in place by executive order aren’t necessarily permanent; most can be reversed by a later president and they often are, as we can see by the above actions revoking executive orders 13766 and 13778. However, executive action has become a major channel for environmental policy, and some orders (such as President Clinton’s requiring agencies to consider the environmental justice impacts of their actions) have lastingly impacted federal practice. Certainly, the climate-related orders issued so far can spur immediate actions that need to be taken towards a cleaner economy, setting the course for more permanent environmental policies the Biden Administration might try to put in place.
The two climate crisis-focused executive orders and the executive statement discussed here make it clear that the Biden administration's policy on the environment is centered around government transparency, job creation and economic revitalization, national security, environmental justice, and assertive action towards a climate-secure world: benefits which we can all enjoy in the short as well as the long term.
Brittany Strobel is a graduate student in the Masters of Environmental Science program.
The views and opinions expressed on the Capitol Connection Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UIS.
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