Brief # 107 Environmental Policy
President Biden’s Executive Orders Greatly Strengthen US Commitment to Fight Climate Change
By Jacob Morton
Feb 3, 2021
On Wednesday, January 27, President Joe Biden signed a flurry of executive actions to address the climate crisis by reviving environmental protections dismantled by the previous administration and promoting the creation of new ‘green’ jobs. The orders revive many Obama-era protections and regulations, including a rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the protection of sacred indigenous sites in Utah. Biden’s executive actions go even further still, mandating that climate change be considered in all major decisions of the Federal government, and re-establishing a culture of scientific integrity and evidence-based decision making across all Federal agencies. The President’s executive orders also call for the Federal government to play a larger role in ensuring economic success for communities and individuals affected by an energy industry shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
The list of President Biden’s environmental executive actions include:
- A commitment to using the federal government’s purchasing power to order a large fleet of zero-emissions vehicles. According to President Biden, “This will mean one million new jobs in the American automobile industry.”
- A pledge to reserve 30 percent of federal land and water for conservation purposes, as well as the creation of a civilian “climate corps” to employ people in conservation work.
- An order to pause all new oil and gas leases on federal lands and in federal waters — though this does not put a stop to drilling all together, the order directs the Interior Department, “to the extent consistent with applicable law,” to “pause” all pending leases while the new administration organizes a review of the effects on climate change associated with drilling on federal land and waters. This action does not address pending permits, only leases. According to reporting from the New York Times, “As of 2019, more than 26 million acres of federal land had been leased to oil and gas companies.” The order further calls for increasing renewable energy production on Federal lands and waters, “with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.”
- A vow to review more than 100 environmental rules and regulations that were weakened or reversed by the Trump administration and to restore Obama-era protections to two Indigenous sacred sites, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which are also national monuments in Utah.
- A “temporary moratorium” on all oil and gas leases in the Arctic national wildlife refuge.
- An order to rescind the permits for the Keystone XL Pipeline and restore the Obama-era rejection of the project that was reversed by the Trump administration.
- A mandate (the first of its kind from any president) that climate change be taken into consideration in all major foreign policy and national security decisions.
- A commitment to build out a network of electric-car charging stations nationwide by manufacturing and installing a half-million new electric-vehicle charging stations.
- A commitment to build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes.
- A commitment to seal off one million abandoned and leaking oil and gas wells.
- An order to create a task force aimed at economically reviving communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry — an acknowledgement that the government should play a larger role in helping displaced fossil fuel workers find jobs in the clean energy sector.
- A formal appointment of the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, to play the role of President Biden’s international climate envoy, with a seat on the National Security Council.
- An announcement that the United States will host a Climate Leaders Summit of major emitting nations and others on Earth Day, April 22. Kerry says that by then, he will announce a new set of specific targets to which the United States aims to lower its carbon dioxide emissions in its commitment to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, abandoned by the previous administration.
- A call for the federal government’s 17 intelligence agencies “to create a first-ever National Intelligence Estimate of the national security risks posed by climate change.”
- A directive to agencies to look for ways to “increase and improve the climate-forecast information available to help governments and others prepare for the consequences of climate change.”
- An expectation of every federal agency to create plans to prepare their facilities for protection against climate-change effects, such as rising sea levels, storms, and droughts. Many agency headquarters in Washington, including the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, lie within the 100-year floodplain (a designation of areas likely to see at least one severe flooding event every 100 years).
- A presidential memorandum instructing all agencies to make what the new administration calls “evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” As a requirement, every agency, not just those that do scientific research, must appoint “scientific integrity” officials to ensure an adherence to science-based policy.
While environmentalists and conservation groups praise Biden’s executive actions, many Republicans and fossil fuel industry leaders argue that they are unfair and will cause more harm than good. Senator John Cornyn of Texas said in a statement, “I’m all for transitioning to cleaner forms of energy, but … How are families going to get to work, take their kids to school, or live their life if all of a sudden the very natural resource that they depend on for their cars is no longer available?” Meanwhile, former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, praised the president’s actions, saying, “This is the way the world is going,” noting that “In 2019, about 40 percent of the United States workforce was in clean energy.” Even General Motors has gotten on board, announcing it will halt production of gasoline and diesel light-duty cars and SUVs, transitioning to all electric by 2035.
To many economists the actions represent a mixed bag. While President Biden argues these actions will create “one million new jobs in the American automobile industry,” economist at Syracuse University, David Popp, says, “[Biden’s] basically saying he’s going to double auto manufacturing. I find that hard to believe. … You can’t do that with auto emissions regulations. You can’t do that with government procurement.” However, Popp, along with other economists, admit that studies generally show that the number of clean energy and environmental mitigation jobs created by new environmental regulations, typically equals the number of jobs lost in the fossil fuels industry.
Popp even goes so far as to praise Biden for acknowledging the need to create a task force within the Federal government focused primarily on economically reviving communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry and finding clean energy jobs for displaced fossil fuel workers. Popp says, “The skills in these clean energy jobs — installing and manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines — are actually a decent match” with workers coming from mining, offshore drilling, and other fields. “What’s really important is how well you can match the job losses to gains.” The President’s executive order also calls for the creation of a “civilian climate corps to employ people in conservation work.” Gina McCarthy, Mr. Biden’s top adviser on domestic climate policy, made sure to emphasize in a press conference that, “We’re not going to ask people to go from the middle of Ohio and Pennsylvania and ship out to the coast to work on solar.” She says, “We’re not going to take away jobs,” the idea is to create clean energy jobs where fossil fuel work is already on the decline.
On the other hand, fossil fuel industry executives criticize the President for the scope, speed, and direction in which he is moving, lamenting that President Biden is going far further than President Obama ever did. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) claims, “This is a radical departure from almost any other administration, and I would even say, President Obama.” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and five other Republican attorneys general wrote in a letter to the President, “Our states have led the charge in successfully challenging unauthorized and unlawful executive actions, … You can be assured that we will do so again, if necessary.” The Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers in Western states, has already filed a lawsuit against the executive order, arguing that “the President exceeded his authority to halt new leases.” Industry executives claim the executive orders, particularly the pause of all new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, “will do little to actually reduce United States emissions and lead to lost jobs and more imported oil.”
Former Senator John F. Kerry, now appointed as Biden’s special envoy on climate, explained to reporters following the signing of the executive orders, that the scientific reality of climate change and its economic impact leave the President no choice. Kerry says, “It is now cheaper to deal with the crisis of climate than it is to ignore it,” pointing to the enormous bills footed by taxpayers to recover from the increasingly destructive hurricanes the country has seen in recent years. Kerry says, “We’re spending more money, folks. We’re just not doing it smart. We’re not doing it in a way that would actually sustain us for the long term.”
Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, and former climate advisor to Obama, says President Biden’s actions are not surprising given the amount of scientific evidence of unprecedented global warming coupled with a significant reduction in cost for renewable energy. Zichal says regarding concerns over the bold scope and pace of the President’s orders, “If we’re going to remove 5.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually and get to zero [emissions] in 30 years, this is going to require drastic action.” The CEO says members of the American Clean Power Association are prepared to invest $1 trillion in the coming years on clean energy projects. Zichal says, “We see nothing but opportunity.”
According to energy analysts in the United States, with Biden’s climate plan and executive orders, the new administration “could now reasonably promise to cut emissions between 40 and 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.” Despite this improvement to the country’s commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement, Europeans and environmental organizations are pressuring the administration to push for even greater reductions, as far as 70 percent below 2005 levels. Climate envoy John Kerry responded to those concerns saying, it is “way too premature” to talk numbers.
American Clean Power Association
- The American Clean Power Association works to champion policies that will transform the U.S. power grid to a low-cost, reliable, and renewable power system. The American Clean Power Association
Center for Biological Diversity
- Working to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
National Resources Defense Council
- Works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. Combining the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild. https://www.nrdc.org/
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Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. (2021, January 27). Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/
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