When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he will be left with a number of smoldering fires to extinguish, perhaps none more pressing than those dealing with the environment. During his four years in office, Donald Trump has done everything in his power to undermine both longstanding American environmental policy and regulations and the initiatives to address climate change put in place by the Obama administration.
It could take years for the Biden White House to fully undo the damage done by Trump and his fossil fuel-friendly cohorts, and Trump is sure to try to do as much damage as possible before leaving office. Achieving that with a Senate that will quite possibly be under Republican control and a House of Representatives with only a small Democratic majority will make things even more challenging. But there is some action that Biden can take almost immediately, and accomplish without needing Congressional approval.
Jean Su, the Energy Director of the Climate Law Institute and a Staff Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells Mic that there are a number of actions that she believes President Biden can take during his first 100 days in office to address some of the Trump administration's more egregious attempts to upend the nation's environmental framework. Much of that work, especially at first, will happen through executive orders — the same tool Trump utilized to bypass environmental protections and create conditions that are more friendly for polluters and major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
"This is something the president can do within his first 100 days. Just to revoke and repeal many of those rollbacks," Su says. The Trump administration has completely or partially reversed at least 100 major environmental rules, which means that Biden's pen might need a refill on ink just to get through the work of turning back the clock to four years ago. Su also notes that there is risk involved in going about addressing policy this way. Just as Biden can undo Trump's policies with little more than a signature, the next person to take office after Biden could do the same. "They are presidential orders that rely on existing walls in place," Su says. "With every new administration, you absolutely have threats of being reversed."
But, she notes, with the right timing, the administration can accomplish something with an executive order that is effective enough that reversing it becomes untenable for future administrations. "There might be a situation down the line when it won't necessarily be economically feasible anymore for fossil fuel companies to continue to drill in the United States due to regular regulatory issues, market issues, electric vehicles." If the Biden administration can use its time in office to restore environmental regulations and push clean energy as a viable and essential alternative to fossil fuels, by the time the next administration is set to take over in four or eight years, the country may be so far along in adopting clean energy technologies that there would be no sense in trying to halt the progress.
That's in part why one of the biggest changes that experts like Su are pushing for is the reestablishment of the fuel efficiency standards that Trump rolled back. "Transportation makes up almost 50 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions," Su says. "It's the most urgent on the climate scale to repeal Trump's rollback of those standards."
Biden should have no problem embracing this. While he's been a skeptic of fuel efficiency standards in the past, he embraced the requirements while serving as Vice President during the Obama administration. In 2012, Obama established rules that would require car manufacturers to roll out fleets of vehicles that average 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Now that plan may not even be ambitious enough to keep up with what some states are implementing. Earlier this year, California announced a plan to ban new sales of gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035. Washington and Hawaii have made similar proposals. Biden may choose not only to reset the fuel efficiency standards to what he and Obama established nearly a decade ago, but to set the bar even higher as the need to move away from fossil fuels becomes increasingly urgent.
Experts project that these policies could add as much as 5.95 billion metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere — more than half of the annual emissions produced by China.
To help this process along, Su also suggests Biden could sign an executive order ending fossil fuel drilling and extraction on federal lands. "The president has the ability to issue an executive order that directs the Secretary of Interior to essentially stop all fossil fuel lease sales and permits," she says, noting that the best way to make sure that fossil fuels don't eventually end up burning up in our atmosphere is by making sure they stay in the ground in the first place.
This would represent a major change from the Trump administration, which has gone out of its way to open up federal lands for more drilling, including areas that had previously been protected, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Experts project that these policies could add as much as 5.95 billion metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere — more than half of the annual emissions produced by China, the worst emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. But banning drilling would also differentiate the Biden administration from Obama.
Under Obama, America experienced a massive oil boom, in part thanks to the administration quietly allowing drilling on federal lands. That, along with Trump's continual expansion of drilling operations, has left us with a considerable petroleum reserve, according to Su. "A transition [away from oil] can actually occur pretty quickly," she says, and our remaining oil supply can serve in the interim as we shift to a clean energy infrastructure. To accelerate that, if needed, Su said Biden could take an even more drastic step. "One of the other very important levers that can be pulled on executive action are those under the Clean Air Act." She says that in addition to setting fuel efficiency standards, the President could go even farther. "The president does have the ability immediately to issue stringent emissions rules on vehicles. In that, he could ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2030."
Such an action may not be necessary with fuel efficiency standards in place, especially as more car manufacturers have already signaled a shift toward electric vehicles in the coming years. But Biden has other tools under the Clean Air Act that Su recommends using, including setting a national pollution cap for greenhouse pollutants.
"The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to set limits on criteria pollutants based on science-based pollution caps," she explains. "Right now, they actually don't do that for greenhouse gas emissions." Biden could instruct the EPA to establish a cap for greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane that are responsible for contributing to climate change. Su says that the process will be a tricky one, both in terms of setting the limits and determining how to regulate it, but she believes that it can be done. Once in place, the rule offers the possibility for broad enforcement. "The Clean Air Act is structured in such a way that the national government sets its cap, but then it rolls down to states, and states have jurisdiction over how to meet those caps," Su says. That means they can set different standards for different counties and enforce the rules in a way that best suits them. For some, that might mean banning gas vehicles. For others, that might mean tighter restrictions on natural gas and coal-burning power plants. It's at the state's discretion as long as they meet the requirements set by the federal government.
We're recommending that Biden use the Defense Production Act to manufacture things like the solar panels... - Jean Su
For industries that don't fall in line with these new standards or with existing ones, penalties could follow. Su says that enforcing the rules is one of the ways that the Biden administration can address climate change without changing anything. It's simply a matter of setting the agenda at the Department of Justice and encouraging the Attorney General to pursue polluters and other violators of environmental law. "The DOJ has federal laws behind them to prosecute polluters and to look at kind of climate liability issues," Su says. She says she'd also encourage the Justice Department to look into violations of antitrust law committed by utility companies, many of which have established monopolies in regions across the country and use their power to block clean energy alternatives from coming in.
While much of Biden's work will be in undoing what Trump did, Su notes that it's worth taking lessons from how the Trump administration used its executive power. While it often used its authority in haphazard or even illegal ways, she says the Biden administration should recognize "the breath of what is actually within statutory authority under executive action." For example, while Trump touted using the Defense Production Act to increase the production of ventilators and personal protective equipment that frontline workers needed while dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, that same law could potentially be used to ramp up production of clean energy infrastructure. "We're recommending that Biden use the Defense Production Act to manufacture things like the solar panels, components of a clean energy system, energy efficiency technologies, and upgrades to transmission lines, that will be needed to power this entire transition," Su says.
Fixing all the damage that Donald Trump wrought won't be easy, but will be essential work. Luckily, Trump just may have shown how tools of the executive can be used to subvert Congress and accomplish a considerable amount in addressing climate change. That's probably not the legacy Trump was hoping for, but it's the one he just might end up with.