Biden’s ‘herky-jerky’ first year on Western issues

The new president sacrificed bold executive action to try to win over Congress.


When President Joe Biden first sat down in the Oval Office a year ago, the nation’s environmental regulatory framework was in shambles. His predecessor, Donald Trump, had put tremendous energy into shrinking national monuments, eviscerating environmental protections and removing so-called “regulatory burdens” from the back of extractive industries. As a lame duck, Trump intensified his environmental rampage by selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, removing critical habitat protections for the northern spotted owl, allowing industry to kill migratory birds without consequence, approving a four-lane highway through a southwestern Utah desert and finalizing a deal that handed over Apache homelands to a global copper-mining company.

Biden, however, appeared uncowed by the destruction: Within hours of his inauguration, he signed a flurry of executive orders under the heading of “protecting public health and the environment and restoring science to tackle the climate crisis.”

Demonstrators rally as part of the 'Climate Chaos Is Happening Now' protest on October 13, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sunrise Movement and other groups, activists marched to the White House to demand that U.S. President Joe Biden stop approving fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency ahead of the United Nations climate summit in November.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But over the ensuing 12 months, his administration hasn’t always lived up to that initial promise. Biden’s first year is “a mixed bag, at best,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the Western Environmental Law Center’s executive director. He believes the administration has intentionally eased back on executive actions in hope of securing more lasting legislation from Congress. But by doing so, Schlenker-Goodrich said, Biden has failed to realize those bold early promises.

Biden has often seemed torn between following the advice of his notably progressive appointees, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning, and attempting to curry favor with senators like Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney and the fossil fuel-friendly Joe Manchin. This conflict has resulted in what can seem like a “two steps forward, one step back” policy pattern. Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit but supported the equally troubling Dakota Access line. He suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but backed Trump’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow drilling project, also in Alaska. He halted construction on the U.S.-Mexico border wall, but instead of removing it altogether, he allocated funds to fill in the gaps on existing sections.

It was, for Biden, a year of herky-jerky, back-and-forth environmental progress:

Step forward: The administration rescinded Trump’s approval of the Oak Flat land exchange, delaying the transfer of historically and ceremonially significant lands to a global mining conglomerate. Step back: But when Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit devoted to protecting sacred sites, asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to halt the exchange on the grounds that privatizing and destroying Oak Flat with mining and the resulting subsidence would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Biden administration argued against those claims, saying, Only Congress can provide the relief the Plaintiffs seek.”

President Biden used the Antiquities Act to restore the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Two steps forward: Months after Haaland delivered her recommendations on the shrunken national monuments, Biden finally used the Antiquities Act to restore the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. He also beefed up their proclamations, and opened the door to grazing buyouts and permanent retirement of grazing leases. One step back: While the grazing retirements were seen as a victory for those looking to reduce or end ranching on public lands, it was offset by the administrations inclusion of ranchlands as conserved areas under its 30x30 initiative. Biden also failed to hike grazing fees above the $1.35 per animal unit month minimum.

Three steps forward: Biden rolled back Trump-era orders on “energy dominance,” and continued to walk the talk in many ways: He paused oil and gas leasing on public lands, restored and strengthened the methane-emissions rules gutted by Trump, and proposed a 20-year ban on oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Two steps back: At the same time, his BLM continued to hand out drilling permits at a pace not seen since George W. Bush. It also issued a review of the oil and gas leasing program that recommended modest reforms and royalty rate hikes but made no effort to overhaul the program or to use reforms to tackle climate change.

One step back: After a judge ruled the oil and gas leasing moratorium illegal, the administration announced that it would lease hundreds of thousands of acres of Western public lands. A half-step forward: But it then removed many of the nominated parcels from the block, citing the potential impacts to sage grouse and other wildlife. In Wyoming, for example, only 195 of 459 parcels being considered will be auctioned.

A big step forward: Biden set the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever by a U.S. president. A step back: The brains behind that agenda, Cecilia Martinez, stepped down from her post as senior director for environmental justice at the Council for Environmental Quality early this month.

A step forward: Bidens Interior Department launched a review of the outdated federal coal leasing program, even as it stepped back by significantly reducing royalty rates for coal companies, which raked in millions in profit during 2021.

Three steps forward: The administration restored Trump-revoked protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, revived enforcement of the Migratory Bird Act and restored the Navigable Waters Protection Rule.

After being pressured by environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service backed off a plan to revoke protections for the Canada lynx.

A (hesitant) step forward: After pressure from environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service backed off a plan to revoke protections for the Canada lynx.

A step forward: The BLM moved its headquarters from Grand Junction, Colorado, where it was relocated in 2019, back to Washington, D.C., in an effort to rebuild the beleaguered agency.

A couple steps forward for the climate, but a step backward for the desert and the ocean: The Interior Department kept its promise to accelerate renewable energy development on public lands by approving a handful of large solar plus storage installations in the Mojave Desert and by planning an offshore wind lease sale along California’s coast.

If Biden’s waffling on some issues was meant to gain concessions from the Senate, his success there was mixed, as well. Congress passed the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, handing Biden a major legislative victory. But the more climate-oriented Build Back Better Act — which contained provisions banning drilling in ANWR, reforming oil and gas leasing, and so forth — continues to languish, thanks in part to Manchin’s intransigence.

The administration’s erratic policymaking may be partly in response to today’s overwhelming challenges: a pandemic that wont go away, inflation and rising gasoline prices, obstructionist Republican lawmakers and the need to clean up all the wreckage Trump left behind. “And in the face of that dynamic, the White House … is pumping the brakes because they fear that taking bold, visionary action will backfire,” Schlenker-Goodrich said.

“The White House … is pumping the brakes because they fear that taking bold, visionary action will backfire.”

“But fear is a terrible driver of sound strategic thinking and action. You gotta play to win and trust the people you put on the field to win it for you,” he went on. “In the fight to protect our public lands from the profit-driven ravages of oil and gas companies, trade associations, and investors, the administration is losing.”

We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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