It’s been a rough four years for people who care about wild places, or, you know, the future of the planet and everyone who lives on it. The good(ish) news: much of the havoc President Trump wreaked on the environment was carried out through executive action, and many of his regulatory rollbacks are still tied up in court—that means they could be revoked fairly quickly by the incoming Biden administration. And now that the results of Georgia’s special election are in, we have a clearer picture of what kind of agenda Biden can enact. After the recent tight race, we know that the presidency, House, and Senate will all be controlled by Democrats. Additionally, public support for climate action and resource conservation are both at all-time highs, and President Biden campaigned on the most aggressive climate plan in history (which has a price tag of $2 trillion—more on that later). Environmental issues, finally, won’t just be back-burnered political projects.
With Congress still almost evenly split, and the Supreme Court not exactly stacked in favor of bold regulatory action, there are likely no landslides ahead. But that doesn’t mean Biden can’t get a lot done quickly. As soon as he’s sworn in, in fact, he can use the power of his office to issue executive orders—Trump, remember, tried to kill the Affordable Care Act hours after moving into the Oval Office—and then keep rolling from there. “It’s not just about putting things back together or returning to the status quo,” Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney at the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard University, told Sierra magazine. “We need to strengthen regulations, because the climate crisis has accelerated dramatically over the last four years, and we have failed to take action on a federal level.” With no time to waste, here’s what Biden can do as soon as he takes that oath.
Return the U.S. to the International Climate Stage
Biden has said that when he takes office, he’ll immediately rejoin the Paris climate agreement, the international commitment to limit global warming that President Trump pulled the country out of in 2017. After a 30-day waiting period—to make sure the rest of the world wants us back—the U.S. will be in again, which means we’ll also have an obligation to set a greenhouse-gas-emissions target. Biden has said that he’ll put forward a plan so the U.S. can work toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s much more aggressive than the Obama-era goal, and it’s very necessary, given how much time we’ve wasted since then. However, successfully achieving the 2050 target hinges on how much of that $2 trillion climate plan can get through Congress.
Stop Drilling on Public Land
The president-elect has also pledged to ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters. That would be a major step toward slashing emissions—around a quarter of America’s total emissions come from extraction on public land. It would also be very hard to do, thanks to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which directs the government to periodically offer drilling leases on federal land. And then there’s the pressure the incoming administration will feel from states like New Mexico, Alaska, and Wyoming, which currently depend on extraction revenue. In Alaska, nearly 85 percent of the state’s budget is derived from oil revenue. But while an outright moratorium on leasing will be challenging, Biden can also take a less direct route by making it expensive and difficult for private extraction companies to benefit from public resources. He can do that in a few different ways. First, through executive order, he can reinstate regulations that Trump loosened, like requirements around methane leaks and mercury emissions, and he can ban offshore exploration. He can also stop the hundreds of subsidies the Trump administration has been handing out to oil and gas companies. Finally, he can use financial pressure to deter extraction on public land by increasing the extremely low royalties the federal government gets when it auctions off leases.
The extraction industry’s interest in drilling leases is currently minimal, as a result of low prices and sluggish demand—tellingly, no major oil companies bid on the long-coveted parcels Trump just opened in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). By increasing financial, logistical, and regulatory pressures on fossil-fuel extraction, while also helping energy-dependent economies transition to clean-energy sources—another big part of his climate plan—Biden and his administration can hit extraction-based emissions from all sides.
Permanently Protect Bears Ears and Other Fragile Lands
On the public-lands front, Biden has promised to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, both in Utah, which he can do on day one with an executive order. But Keala Carter, a public-lands specialist from the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition who led the effort to create the Bears Ears National Monument, has said that the coalition’s goal is truly permanent protection for the area. So the current debate is not if it will be protected, but how the administration will choose to go about it, either by issuing a new proclamation by executive order or by challenging Trump’s authority to shrink it in the first place.
While he’s at it, Biden can shore up the Antiquities Act, which Trump weakened in 2017 through an energy-friendly executive order. He can halt construction on the border wall and permanently protect ANWR, along with other fragile places like Arizona’s Great Bend of the Gila National Monument, Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands. Those designations would all play into another piece of Biden’s climate agenda: a conservation plan to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030.
Reverse Trump’s Environment and Energy-Rule Rollbacks
While it will take more effort to ensure that any new protections would withstand a Republican in the White House in 2024, on day one, Biden can unilaterally get rid of Trump’s environmentally damaging executive orders, including the Keystone XL pipeline permits. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School already wrote up a draft executive order that kills ten of them in one swift signature, including orders to open up offshore drilling and expedite building oil and gas infrastructure.
Then there are the 125 environmental rules and safeguards that Trump weakened or rolled back in his time in office. Only 17 of the 89 that were legally challenged have received rulings in favor. A Biden justice department can throw out the remaining cases, which it will presumably no longer want to pursue; those include orders that opened the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging and that weakened the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Any Trump regulation that did successfully take effect—like the gutting of the Clean Power Plan, which Trump replaced with the carbon-friendly Affordable Clean Energy rule—will be harder to undo. The Biden administration will likely need to restart the rulemaking process and enact new standards, which would be tedious but ideally be more durable than executive action.
From the top down, Biden is stacking his administration with people who (gasp!) believe in climate science. And not just in the departments that are traditionally tied to climate and environment, like the EPA and Interior, where former New Mexico representative Deb Haaland likely will oversee one-fifth of the land in the U.S. It’s happening everywhere from the Treasury (Janet Yellen loves a carbon tax) to Housing and Urban Development, which can draw up new floodplain maps to manage the risk of sea-level rise. Biden has also formed Cabinet-level positions that directly address climate, like former Secretary of State John Kerry’s role as climate envoy and ex-EPA chief Gina McCarthy’s new gig as national climate adviser. Finally, Biden has said he’s planning a new environmental and climate division within the Department of Justice.
Once his Cabinet is in place, the biggest task will be fixing the Trump-era brain drain at federal agencies. John Holdren, Obama’s top science adviser, said he thinks Biden’s most important early assignement is to return scientists and experts to government positions. And nowhere is that more true than the Bureau of Land Management, especially when it comes to public lands. The administration can bring the office back to Washington, D.C., as current and former BLM staff have requested, along with the career staff who quit when the office moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, last summer.
That brings us to Congress, and soon-to-be demoted Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The Democrats have a tiny margin of control, which likely means two things in the short term: First, Biden shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a Cabinet installed, allowing him to start enacting his agenda much more quickly—that’s especially important while the climate clock is ticking. Second, the administration can use the Congressional Review Act to veto any federal regulation enacted in the last 60 legislative days of the administration—roughly since June. The 115th Congress used the CRA to repeal 17 Obama-administration rules after Trump took office, and this year there are some big things that fall within the timeline, most notably the Trump administration’s moves to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Those can be stopped immediately, before the new regulations even get to court.
Then we’re likely looking at an ideological fight over climate action that could be accomplished through budget measures, like that $2 trillion sustainable infrastructure plan Biden campaigned on, or other legislative action, like a national clean-energy standard or the polarizing Green New Deal. New environmental laws would be an even longer shot—none have passed since 1990 because of partisan lockjaw.
It’s hard not to be worried that we’ll spend the next four years untangling the past four, treading water while the seas rise. But I’m trying to believe that the political tides have turned enough to bring on meaningful change.