The good news is the president takes the climate crisis seriously. The bad news is it’s worse than ever. The climate catastrophe didn’t stop because Trump ignored it. Forests didn’t stop burning because he said it was a raking problem. The polar ice caps didn’t stop melting because the U.S. acted as if that didn’t matter. All that just got worse. For four years the earth continued to do what it was on track to do for some time: it got hotter. It did so because of the millions of tons of carbon that the human race pumps into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. And it will keep getting hotter until (and even after) we stop doing that. It’s that simple.
Within days of taking office, the Washington Post reported, Biden stopped the Keystone XL pipeline, returned to the Paris climate agreement, closed the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling, made climate action a priority for every federal agency, imposed a moratorium on federal oil and gas leasing and more. He also “initiated a process to invest in minority and low-income communities that historically have borne the brunt of pollution.” Biden overturned 10 Trump rollbacks of environmental policy “and is targeting more than 60 others.” He has promised to review more than 100.
He did this in two executive orders, one on January 20, the other on January 27. Biden’s first executive order singles out the Trump administration by directing federal agencies to address actions “during the last four years that conflict” with Biden’s climate agenda. It orders a review of all regulations and policies adopted by Trump on the climate and the environment.
These directives, the New York Times reported Biden as saying, “would reserve 30 percent of federal land and water for conservation purposes, make climate policy central to national security decisions and build out a network of electric-car charging stations nationwide.” The bad news was that Biden qualified all this green enthusiasm by repeating that he wouldn’t ban fracking. And he treads very carefully around the right-wing canard that going green is a job-killer. Indeed, “his order creates a task force aimed at economically reviving communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry.”
Biden has other tools at hand to tackle climate change besides his executive orders, which are just a start. There’s also the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This commission could put “carbon prices on electricity, propelling a massive build out of high voltage power lines and making it harder to build natural gas pipelines,” Bloomberg reports, before arguing that Biden can’t rely on congress, because it’s so closely divided.
That’s where FERC comes in, and FERC is doubtless not the only federal board or commission Biden can turn to. This is where his long years in congress and bureaucratic expertise could really have some effect. This is different, to say the least, from the wrecking ball that slammed thorough the delicate climate mitigation machinery of regulation during the Trump years.
Among the splashiest headline-grabbing actions announced by Biden on the climate in the January 20 executive order is the one stopping the Keystone XL pipeline. The revocation cites a 2015 review that concluded Keystone did not serve the U.S. national interest. The order argues that we face a climate crisis which requires “action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory.”
The $8 billion pipeline, which would have carried 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day to the Gulf Coast from Canada was rejected by Obama in 2015. As NPR reported when Biden nixed it a second time, “construction on Keystone XL began last year and…about 300 miles of the pipeline has been built so far.” Needless to say, oil and gas industry groups screamed at once about “killing 10,000 jobs.” But the pipeline’s owner, TC Energy Corp. told PolitiFact that that number was really 1000. And even those jobs were temporary. The difference is due to how many jobs were projected to be created by Keystone, and that number was 10,400. However, Biden can just as easily argue that more green-energy jobs will be created instead. In fact, Biden’s clean energy plan aims to generate 10 million jobs. When compared thus, the numbers don’t look so daunting.
Bush was the first president to issue a permit for Keystone, in 2008. The Keystone pipeline system consists of four Phases. The fourth is Keystone XL. It proposes a pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska. Obama rejected the extension over environmental concerns. Upon inauguration, in a body-blow to those who want a livable planet, Trump promptly revived it. Now Biden has axed the pipeline again.
This is a huge victory for the Native people and the environmental groups that opposed the pipeline, but plenty of work remains. Lots of other awful projects wait in the wings. As Nick Estes reported in the Guardian: “In Arizona, where Biden won the Native vote, the Forest Service could, in the coming months, hand over 2400 acres of Chi’chil Bildagoteel, an Apache sacred site, to the Australian mining company Rio Tinto…for a copper mine, which would create a nearly two-mile wide open-pit crater, destroying numerous Native burial sites, ceremonial areas and cultural items.”
Also, there’s still the Dakota Access pipeline. This runs under the Missouri River and, the group Environmental Action charges, is “a spill waiting to happen.” Indian Country Today reports that Biden’s termination of the Keystone XL pipeline has encouraged leaders of four Sioux tribes to ask that he do the same to Dakota Access. “The leaders want Biden to instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the flow of oil through the pipeline,” the publication reports, adding that these leaders cite the Obama administration’s halt for an easement to that pipeline, a decision that Trump reversed at once upon taking office.
Trump also opened the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. To stop this, Biden’s first executive order issued a moratorium, based on legal deficiencies in Trump’s program, “including the inadequacy of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Secretary of the Interior shall…place a temporary moratorium on…the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program.” Biden’s order states that the secretary shall review the program; it cites Obama’s protection of parts of the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling and Trump’s subsequent revocation of that. Biden reinstates Obama’s orders “in their original form.”
According to High North News: “The new moratorium comes only one day after the Trump administration announced that it had finalized their 10-year leases for oil drilling in the northern part of the refuge, the coastal plain.” Trump did this in the teeth of lawsuits against it from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Gwich’in Steering Committee. Major U.S., Canadian and European banks “pledged not to finance projects in the Arctic,” according to the Sierra Club’s magazine.
Apparently, the spectacle of fossil fuel corporations’ depraved assault on one of the worlds’ most pristine wildernesses and the horrendous publicity that would create was too much for some banks. After all, the Arctic Refuge’s species include polar bears, waterbirds, arctic foxes, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, muskoxen and brown and black bears. It is also a wildlife nursery. According to the Alaska Wilderness Society, the Refuge’s “coastal plain serves as birthing grounds for the Porcupine caribou in summer and the most important land denning area for America’s threatened polar bears in winter.” It’s also an avian migration destination: “Approximately 200 species of birds call the Arctic Refuge home at least part of the year, including snowy owls, Arctic terns and golden eagles.” The Society explains that these 19.6 million acres of public land in northeast Alaska include the Mollie Beattie Wilderness, which at eight million acres is “the second largest wilderness area in the U.S.” Indigenous people also live there and don’t appreciate the prospect of their villages polluted by oil drilling and their sacred sites desecrated. There is an Inupiaq village on the Arctic Ocean coast. The Gwich’in people also live in the Refuge.
So saving this primeval wild is a big deal. Just as despoiling it, which Trump did possibly maliciously, also would have been. Trump’s policy offered drilling rights on about one million acres of coastal plain. That included 22 tracts of federal land, about five percent of the Arctic Refuge. But back on January 6, the lease sale only attracted three bidders, one of which was the state of Alaska. Why? Because major oil companies stayed away. But that didn’t stop Trump, determined to desecrate this wilderness. He auctioned off a half a million acres. If not for the pandemic and sagging oil demand, he might have leased much more. The purpose of his unseemly haste with this auction was to lock in as many leases as possible before Biden took office.
This was a very close call. And it may not be the end of the Refuge’s problems. The Republican-led congress approved drilling in the 2017 tax cut act, “requiring lease sales by the end of 2021 and 2024,” reported the Anchorage Daily News. After the auction flopped, “oil production in the refuge, if it ever occurs, is not expected to happen for at least a decade.” Remember, Biden’s moratorium is perforce temporary; he needs congressional action to make it permanent. Those 10-year leases that were issued “create extra legal hurdles for Biden to overcome, but experts have said Biden’s administration has avenues to delay or stop it.”
Unluckily, the coastal plain may contain billions of barrels of oil. That is something senators and other Alaskan leaders find very alluring. They are not concerned with the Gwich’in, who depend on the Porcupine caribou herd for food. Nor are they concerned that burning those barrels of oil would release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. And now they have a weapon – the leases – and the headaches they create for the Biden administration “if it plans to revoke them” according to the Anchorage Daily News. However, “the federal government has suspended leases before. Former President Barack Obama’s administration suspended oil and gas leases in Montana in an area sacred to the Blackfeet Nation. Federal courts have upheld the decision.”
Biden’s executive order also restores national monuments, specifically Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah and one undersea monument the size of Connecticut, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Rhode Island. The order’s language focuses on restoring these monuments’ boundaries, which Trump shrank. The review will take 60 days, conducted by the secretary of the interior and also the attorney general, who is involved due to pending litigation. The AG may “provide notice of this order to any court with jurisdiction” over litigation over these monuments and he may “request the court stay the litigation…or seek other appropriate relief.”
Trump constricted the boundaries to open more land for mining. He thus reduced the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears monument by 85 percent, and cut Grand Staircase-Escalante in half. It was a move in keeping with Trump’s aim to promote oil and gas leasing on protected lands, to gut habitat protections for endangered species and to limit drilling regulations.
But then the lawsuits started coming – from Native nations and tourism and environmental groups. According to National Geographic, while the 1906 Antiquities Act gave Obama the power to protect these monuments, “there is no language in the law, however, granting presidents the right to rescind or cut them.” With oil and gas fields on Bears Ears’ boundaries, there loomed the danger of serious pollution. But for both monuments, Trump touted his reduced boundaries as job creators. The coal at Escalante, however, is deeply buried, and the coal market has collapsed, making that extraction less likely.
“No one values the splendor of Utah more than you do,” Trump told a crowd, when he visited the state to announce his monument edicts, “and no one knows better how to use it.” He also criticized Obama’s creation of such large monuments in the first place: “These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here and make this place their home.” He showed no such concern for the Indigenous people who have made this place their home since long before Utah was even a state.
According to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye’s written statement: “The decision to reduce the size of the Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo nation will defend Bears Ears.” Begaye affirmed that the Navajos would litigate. The statement announced that the Navajo Nation, four other tribes and a coalition of nonprofits and citizens’ groups had rallied to defend the monument. No wonder Biden’s executive order involves his attorney general. Lots of people sued over Trump’s attempt to trash these monuments. And then there could also be lawsuits from the other side, from those who wanted to mine there.
Biden’s executive order also revokes many of Trump’s orders, memoranda and agency rules and actions. Indeed, section two of Biden’s executive order is titled “Immediate Review of Agency Actions Taken Between January 20, 2017 and January 20, 2021.” Clearly Biden tried to undo as much of Trump’s environmental damage as he could in one fell swoop.
Noteworthy in this connection is the preamble to the January 20 executive order. In it, Biden invokes listening to science, protecting the environment, limiting exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides, holding polluters accountable and prioritizing environmental justice, among other things. These are the sorts of big claims one associates with campaign promises made to be broken. If Biden does more than a small portion of them, it will be astonishing.
Just take clean water – also mentioned in this introduction. The Flint water crisis began in April 2014, in the Obama years. Obama did not address it in any substantive way, aside from sending in FEMA. Trump certainly didn’t either. So now, in 2021, when Flint finally, allegedly has clean water – guess what? The locals won’t drink it. Would you? If you had brown, lead-polluted water flowing out of your tap for years, courtesy of the state government and they finally claimed they fixed it – would you drink it? Can you blame anyone who wouldn’t?
Flint may now have lead-free water, but plenty of other American cities don’t: Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Newark and Washington, D. C., to name a few. According to Business Insider, Brady, Texas has radium in its water; Baltimore’s cloudy water contains potentially toxic particles; toxic chemicals pollute water in Dos Palos, California; Newburgh, New York had contaminated water last year and Miami tap water contains forever chemicals, PFAS. Trump invoked clean air and clean water, but that was a joke. Now Biden invokes them in his first executive order. If he’s serious, what about all these American cities with dirty tap water? Will he make fixing that a priority? Because he should.
The second executive order, the one from January 27 presents much more of your standard impenetrable government prose, as it places “the climate crisis at the forefront of the Nation’s foreign policy and national security planning,” including rejoining the Paris agreement. In this regard, the order says Biden will host a Leaders Climate Summit, and that the U.S. will reconvene the major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, to pursue “initiatives to advance the clean energy transition, sectoral decarbonization” and more.
The order also calls for integrating climate concerns “across a wide range of international fora,” including the G7 and G10; it announces the U.S. will develop a climate financial plan to help developing countries reduce emissions, protect critical ecosystems, and promote “the flow of capital toward climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.” The order directs the secretaries of state, treasury and energy to cooperate with the Export-Import Bank and others to help the U.S. “promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy.”
A major concern is how the climate catastrophe affects foreign policy and national security. Since the U.S. military is one of the world’s biggest polluters, one would expect that to be addressed. Biden does so – but only to a certain extent and in dense bureaucratese. He calls for assessing “climate impacts of their agency-managed infrastructure abroad (e.g. embassies, military installations).” Biden also orders the director of national intelligence to prepare a “National Intelligence Estimate on the national and economic security impacts of climate change.” He directs numerous bureaucratic bigwigs to work together to produce “an analysis of the security implications of climate change (Climate Risk Analysis) that can be incorporated into modeling, simulation, war-gaming…” Just what we need: green war-games. Or maybe Biden is concerned about climate-caused freak typhoons interfering with the U.S. navy war games in the South China Sea. Either way, it’s not hard to brainstorm better ways to focus on the U.S. military’s humongous pollution problem.
In the section on taking a government-wide approach to the climate crisis, Biden cooks up an alphabet soup of departments and advisors, who are to support the Climate Policy Office. Then he creates a National Climate Task Force. Everybody’s on it. As far as I can tell, every secretary, director, chair, administrator in this administration participates in this task force.
Buried in this section is the startling, eye-popping goal of achieving “a carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035.” This phrase makes struggling through the jungle of bureaucratic terminology worth it. 2035 might not be too late. The climate catastrophe is dire, but if we stop making it worse by 2035, there’s hope for our species – assuming other countries decide to emulate this goal. And then, equally exciting and hopeful, Biden directs various mucky mucks to make sure to end what has long seemed a permanent feature of our government, namely, fossil fuel subsidies – starting with the budget request for fiscal 2022. Reading these executive orders, one could be forgiven for concluding that maybe 2035 for drastically reduced carbon emissions is doable.
Separately from his executive orders, in other environmentally sensitive actions, Biden asked the senate to approve the amendment to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, already ratified by 113 nations. Trump was letting this die on the vine. This amendment phases out heat-trapping hydroflourocarbons (HFCs). These greenhouse gasses are 1000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, regarding global warming. HFCs are used in air-conditioners and refrigerators, but have other uses too.
Originally promoted as substitutes to ozone layer-depleting chlorofluorocarbons 30 years ago, HFCs clearly have their own problems. According to the New York Times, “thanks to well over $1 billion invested in innovation by American companies, alternatives exist.” The Times estimates that U.S. ratification of this treaty would add 33,000 new manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and have other economic benefits. Overall for the environment, this is a huge deal.
As Biden unravels Trump’s skein of environmental abuse, it’s wise not to lose sight of the tremendous tasks that remain: the climate catastrophe itself, the sixth mass extinction and ubiquitous plastic pollution, for starters. Trump did not cause these. Our economic system, also known as capitalism, did that. Massive, even revolutionary, changes in how the supposedly sacred and very unfree free market works will be required to alter the deadly course we are on. It will take a lot more than two executive orders to cure these ills – or even just to tame the illness, currently raging toward a deadly planetary fever.
One small but noteworthy example: Under Trump, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing endangered species act protections from gray wolves in most of the U.S. This is a lousy idea. It has taken years to get a healthy wolf population back in the wild, and now hunters and ranchers will have a free hand to decimate these animals again. This is not how you rescue an endangered species – and globally there are thousands of endangered species. Biden hasn’t waded into the wolf debate, but what more eloquent if understated way to show that the U.S. government takes its own laws seriously? For if the endangered species act means anything, it means that once we’ve rescued a species, we don’t turn around and endanger it again.
Biden has taken some necessary first steps on the environment, but that’s what they are – first steps. He may not be able to get a fully stocked Green New Deal through a closely divided congress, but he should certainly try to do as much as he can to reverse the planetary poisoning caused by the capitalism this country so stubbornly and dogmatically champions. FDR is his role model. FDR said he created his stupendous New Deal social programs to save capitalism (from itself). So, following in FDR’s gigantic footsteps, Biden will doubtless try to save capitalism for a second time. Whether it is possible to do so this time around, and maintain a livable planet, remains to be seen.