Unlike the words of the Rolling Stones song, time is not on Joe Biden’s side. The president-elect faces a gauntlet of overlapping crises that cry out for immediate attention — an escalating pandemic, an underperforming economy, race-relations discord and rapidly intensifying climate change.
Biden’s ability to respond to these crises is limited by the loss of his party’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the lack of a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. This political reality will limit the Biden administration’s ability to enact legislation for large-scale environmental policy changes and investments, even as the appetite for such changes in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing remains unquenched.
The Biden administration will be forced to define key priorities that it can parade before the American people as concrete successes for the 2022 midterm elections.
Something’s got to give. The Biden administration will be forced to define key priorities that it can parade before the American people as concrete successes for the 2022 midterm elections. For environmental issues, what are those doable priorities? They include:
- Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. As the president-elect already has announced, this can be accomplished through the click of a presidential pen and will be part of restoring U.S. leadership in international environmental forums.
- Undoing Trump administration regulatory policy rollbacks. Altogether, there were about 125 major Trump rollbacks of environmental and conservation safeguards across various federal agencies. While time-consuming, the new administration will have executive authority to reinstate Obama-era controls. High priorities will include restoring methane emissions regulations for oil and gas operations and higher mileage standards for the automotive industry; rescinding EPA decisions that limited the participation of federally funded independent scientists on scientific advisory boards; reaffirming accepted scientific community rules of evidence to set health-and-safety standards; reinstituting enforcement of environmental laws; and reversing Trump administration decisions that permitted mining, drilling and logging on federal lands and in critical ecosystems.
- Launching new climate and economic initiatives. During the presidential campaign, Biden’s climate task force closely linked climate and economic issues. Post-election, this decision looks even wiser. Standalone climate legislation will face a protracted debate with an uncertain prospect. Bundled within a broader economic recovery and infrastructure bill, however, the administration can present a stronger case for the jobs and other economic benefits from decarbonizing the electricity grid and transportation system, making buildings more energy efficient, investing in carbon-capture research, and removing tax breaks for fossil-fuel production. This set of actions will require congressional approval and will represent a major test of the new administration’s influence and skill.
- Rebuilding the scientific capabilities of federal agencies. This is both a money and a talent challenge. Given competing priorities, it is unlikely that the new administration will restore all of the necessary research funds in its first appropriations cycle. It can, however, address the talent drain of the past several years by calling back retired or purged federal employees with critical expertise, in addition to hiring new talent. Gaining rapid access to experienced personnel is a critical asset for enabling the Biden administration to expedite implementation of its priority policies.
- Advancing social and environmental justice. The disproportionate exposure of low-income and minority populations to higher levels of pollution has persisted for generations. Strengthening policies for the siting and permitting of industrial facilities, providing the means to measure the health status of local populations, and approving compensation for people compromised by pollution will be placed on the table.
The ambition of the new administration’s environmental agenda will be significantly tested. Not only must the White House negotiate with congressional Republicans (many of whom will rediscover a new fervor for balanced budgets), divisions within the Democratic Party that were papered over during the campaign will resurface. Democratic senators from fossil-fuel-producing states — including Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — will have no enthusiasm for banning existing or future oil production or shale gas fracking.
Much of the heavy lifting for environmental policy, by default, will occur by executive actions through the regulatory process. This is not the ideal solution. As the Obama administration subsequently learned, what can be done by executive fiat can be reversed by a successor president. In addition, the 220 federal judges appointed by Trump can be counted upon to be less deferential to regulatory decisions and may reverse existing judicial precedents.
While the new administration will be able to achieve much of its environmental agenda, the expectations for significant change are much higher. Reconciling the internal conflicts within the Democratic caucus and progressive wing with the political realities of negotiating with an energetic opposition party will be a formidable test of the Biden administration during the first 100 days and beyond.