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Biden Jump-starts Environmental Overhaul

During its first week in office, the new Biden-Harris Administration made an aggressive start on halting and rolling back the pro-polluter legacy of the Trump Administration and moving forward to address environmental problems with a series of executive orders.

As promised, actions to address the climate crisis led the movement, per the overwhelming majority of Americans’ wishes. On his Inauguration Day, President Biden signed orders directing 15 executive actions, including re-joining the Paris Climate Accord negotiated under the Obama Administration. That action sends a powerful global signal that the United States is ready to resume an international leadership role in combating climate change, in cooperation with other nations. Underscoring that point, Biden’s special U.S. climate envoy John Kerry spoke remotely the next day to an international business conference in Italy, urging faster action to curb emissions from fossil fuels.

Those first-day orders also directed federal agencies to immediately review regulations and executive actions of the past four years which may threaten public health or the environment. The breadth of this directive was made necessary by the sheer scope and number of the Trump Administration’s attacks on the environment. The directive activates the resources of multiple federal agencies in the process of identifying and repairing the damage, including rollbacks and revisions to energy efficiency rules, fuel economy standards, and methane emission limits on oil and gas production.

The orders also suspend new oil, gas, and coal leasing, drilling, and mining permits on federal land and waters for 60 days, setting the stage for more permanent actions in this area. In the most high-profile energy infrastructure cases, Biden’s orders revoke the federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and place a moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

The environmental order also specifically calls for focus on racial and environmental injustice — the disproportionate impacts which pollution and environmental health problems visit on the poor and communities of color. “The order highlights environmental justice concerns at multiple points, which dovetails with President Biden’s emphasis – outside the environmental context – on racial justice. Although there is no federal environmental justice statute, expect to see this issue addressed in various ways, including through permitting decisions, regulatory conditions, enforcement priorities, and prosecutorial discretion. The Biden EPA will likely focus more heavily on sources of pollution in low-income and minority neighborhoods and on how infrastructure development impacts those communities.”

For those interested in a deeper dive into the detailed scorecard of what pro-polluter Trump actions have been repealed, which ones specifically targeted, and which ones are yet to go, the Washington Post offers an overview and tracker here.

Perhaps nothing signaled a new sheriff was in town as clearly and quickly as when the White House website immediately refreshed its content upon Biden’s ascension at noon last Wednesday, including an acknowledgement of climate change as a major issue. Former President Trump had banished any mention of climate.

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