How the Biden administration can reverse Trump’s environmental policies

And what actions the President-elect should prioritize.

 

Mather Point is one of the most popular and busiest viewpoints on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona. For visitors entering the park, Mather Point is the first place to stop and see the canyon.
Michael Quinn/NPS

This article was originally published on The Conversation and is republished here with permission.

The Trump administration has waged what I and many other legal experts view as an all-out assault on the nation’s environmental laws for the past four years. Decisions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and other agencies have weakened the guardrails that protect our nation’s air, water and public lands, and have sided with industry rather than advocating for public health and the environment.

Senior officials such as EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler assert that the Trump administration has balanced environmental regulation with economic growth and made the regulatory process less bureaucratic. But former EPA leaders from both Democratic and Republican administrations have called this administration’s actions disastrous for the environment.

Rolling back laws and hollowing out agencies

The Trump administration has used many tools to weaken environmental protection. For example, Trump issued an executive order in June 2020 to waive environmental review for infrastructure projects like pipelines and highways.

The EPA has revised regulations that implement the Clean Water Act to drastically scale back protection for wetlands, streams and marshes. And the administration has revoked California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own standards for air pollution emissions from cars, although California is pressing ahead.

The Trump administration has also changed agency procedures to limit the use of science and upended a longstanding approach to valuing the costs and benefits of environmental rules. It has cut funding for key agency functions such as research and overseen an exodus of experienced career staff.

A quick about-face

I expect that the Biden administration will quickly signal to the nation that effectively applying the nation’s environmental laws matters to everyone – especially to communities that bear an unfair share of the public health burden of pollution.

With a closely divided Senate, Biden will need to rely primarily on executive actions and must-pass legislative measures like the federal budget and the Farm Bill to further his environmental agenda. Policies that require big investments, such as Biden’s pledge to invest US$400 billion over 10 years in clean energy research and innovation, can make a big difference, but may be challenging to advance. Coupling clean technology with infrastructure and jobs programs to build back better is likely to have broad appeal.

I expect that officials will move quickly to restore the role of science in agency decision-making and withdraw Trump-era policies that make it harder to adopt protective regulations. A Biden EPA will end efforts to impede states like California that are moving ahead under their own authority to protect their residents, and will make clear to career staff that their expertise is valued.

The agency is likely to withdraw or closely scrutinize pending Trump proposals, such as the ongoing review of the current standard for fine-particle air pollution. Officials also will review pending litigation, much of which involves challenges to Trump administration rule revisions and policies, and decide whether to defend any of them. There likely won’t be many.

In their final campaign debate, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden offered sharply contrasting views of how environmental protection affects the economy.

One area where EPA can quickly change course is enforcement. Biden’s climate and energy plan pledges to hold polluters accountable, and his administration reportedly plans to create a new division at the Justice Department focused on environmental and climate justice. Biden has promised greater attention to environmental justice communities, where neighborhoods are heavily affected by concentrations of highly polluting sources such as refineries and hazardous waste sites.

Many of these actions can be done quickly through new executive orders or policy changes. Regulatory changes will take longer. In my view, Biden’s biggest challenge will be deciding what to prioritize. His administration will not be able to do (or undo) everything. Even with a revitalized career workforce and political staff all rowing in the same direction, there won’t be enough bandwidth to address all the bad policies enacted in the past four years, let alone move forward with a proactive agenda focused on public health protection and environmental justice.

Janet McCabe served as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) from 2009 to 2013, and as Acting Assistant Administrator for OAR from 2013-2017. She is Director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute and Professor of Practice at the IU McKinney School of Law.

The Conversation

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...