Fifteen months ago, the incoming Biden administration enacted a series of legislative and regulatory proposals aimed at protecting public health and the environment and transforming large parts of the American economy. Today, the government faces the reality that environmental sustainability issues are once again caught in the crossfire of the nation’s political wars leading to another election cycle.
Amid the noise and fury, there were many impactful decisions along with a growing list of unfulfilled promises and a growing realization of how quickly political capital can unravel. This is especially true on Capitol Hill, where there is an equally divided US Senate and where Democrats expect to lose the House of Representatives after the 2022 midterm elections. In particular, separate pincer movements led by Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-West Virginia) opposition to Joe Biden’s expansive (and expensive) Build Back Better program and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have dealt a double whammy to Biden’s efforts to reach 50 percent Reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Even slowing the rise in such emissions has become decidedly more difficult as global energy supplies tighten and inflation rises, prompting the government to support near-term increases in oil and gas production.
The Biden administration’s environmental sustainability agenda — a year later — can be evaluated in three broad areas: restoring first place, new initiatives, and adaptation strategies.
Out with the Old: Restoration of Square One
The March 22 Washington Post analysis of Biden’s environmental actions noted that “the story of Biden’s first year in office is not just a story of doing, but of dooming.” Over the past year, agencies across the US federal government have invested a tremendous amount of staff time reversing 77 Trump-era decisions and targeting another 93 environmentally-related decisions. This work included analyzing the previous government’s decisions, developing the scientific, economic, political and legal rationale for their replacement, rewriting new policy proposals, publicly commenting on them, and numerous other administrative tasks required by the rulemaking process.
Key policy U-turns to date have included: reinstating controls on methane emissions; Abandonment of Keystone XL pipeline; Restoring California’s Clean Air Act-waiving stricter air pollution standards than the federal government; repeal of the previous government’s scientific “transparency” rule, which restricted the use of scientific evidence to set health and environmental standards; exorcising Trump’s withdrawal of the Obama Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to control greenhouse gases from utilities; and the introduction of stricter energy efficiency standards for a variety of appliances. As of March, the Biden administration has targeted or reversed about 75 percent of the Trump administration’s deregulation decisions, according to the Washington Post’s Environmental Tracker analysis.
The Biden administration’s environmental sustainability agenda – 1 year later – can be evaluated in three main areas: restoration of the first place, new initiatives and adaptation strategies.
In with the new
Though the Biden administration does not always stand up in court or withstand political pressure from Capitol Hill or industry groups, it implements a wide range of new environmental and energy initiatives. These are the result of new funds approved by Congress in annual budget bills, the bipartisan infrastructure legislation of 2021, and an assertion of executive power in a variety of legislation. Of particular importance is the mobilization of a wide range of executive bodies that previously played a minor role in environmental policy.
Notable initiatives included:
- $20 billion in funding for innovative climate technologies through a Department of Energy Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations
- Provided $15 billion to replace lead and copper drinking water pipes
- Invested $5 billion in electric vehicle charging stations
- Provided $3.2 billion for home weathering
- Provided $1 billion to restore the Great Lakes
- Establishment of a reporting system to determine the sources and quantities of PFAS “Forever Chemicals”
- impose higher fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light commercial vehicles
- Proposal that 40 percent of federal sustainability investments be dedicated to disadvantaged communities
- Hired the US Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full environmental impact assessment for a proposed Formosa Plastics facility near historically black communities in Louisiana
- Monitoring emissions from chemical plants along the lower Mississippi
- Proposing a new requirement from the Securities and Exchange Commission that public companies disclose levels of financial risk from climate change, and
- Announced a plan by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (later amended after objections from Manchin, Republicans and pipeline companies) to review the climate impact of new pipelines.
advance adaptation strategies
Implementing an ambitious environmental sustainability agenda of infrastructure funding, regulatory proposals, legal filings, and scientific assessments requires a significant shift in human and financial resources across the federal government.
Agencies like the EPA face particularly tough challenges due to debilitating reductions in scientific staff and funding. The historically large amounts of money available for infrastructure investment will be offset by a shortage of qualified personnel in many agencies that must evaluate, process, and implement grants to state and local governments and other grantees.
With its diminished political clout on Capitol Hill and the ongoing need to rebuild core competencies and budgets, the Biden administration must develop multiple adjustment strategies to advance its agenda. They include:
- Continue to hit singles and doubles. At this point in the political calendar, it is unrealistic to expect the Biden administration to come up with sweeping new proposals that would require congressional approval. With greater political headwinds, she will do well to digest what is already on her plate. And currently it has the legal authority to do so. Updating national air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter to 2.5, accelerating Superfund cleans, expanding scientific reviews of high-priority pollutants, and reducing unfair risk exposures for lower-income communities and people of color can continue to provide direct, tangible evidence that the Government does this by providing substantial health and environmental benefits.
- Extensive collaboration with the private sector at market scale. Much of the current progress in decarbonizing the economy and reducing other sources of pollution results from private sector initiatives without direct regulation. Ongoing efforts such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the supply chains of global companies, reducing single-use plastics and their precursor chemicals through action across the plastics value chain, and collaborating on the use of data analytics to inform environmental decisions have accelerated largely without the involvement of federal agencies. What is missing from these and other private sector initiatives is a governance process that provides minimum performance standards and transparency of results to prevent “free rider” companies from circumventing these obligations. This is a role tailored to the skills of government agencies who can also acquire an in-depth knowledge of market innovations, even as they complement the actions of leading companies.
- Development of innovative policy frameworks for a new economy. The transformation of the American economy is already underway. While the decarbonization of industrial sectors, the transition away from internal combustion engine technologies, the modernization of the power grid and the introduction of smart technologies to reduce energy and water consumption are years – in some cases decades – away from a market-wide scale, it is already abundantly clear that the traditional regulatory process to be repurposed for the new economy. There are great opportunities to work together to design new policy frameworks with the private sector, non-governmental organisations, state and local authorities, minority and indigenous communities and academia. This requires collaborative research, development of new policy tools (including those that take advantage of economic incentives and consumer behavior) and innovation leading to a more equitable and pollution-free economy.
Later this year, two key decisions will shape the future environmental sustainability agenda — the midterm elections in November that will determine congressional control for the next two years, and a US Supreme Court decision in the West Virginia v. Environmental Protection case Agency .
In this case, with a decision expected by the end of June, the court will review delegated statutory powers that the EPA and many other federal agencies use to regulate pollution and other economic activities. The outcome will determine whether Congress needs to rewrite existing statutes to provide more specific authorization for agencies’ regulatory powers. The legal and political ramifications of this decision will be historic in nature and will have a strong impact on environmental policy-making.
The Biden administration is keeping its fingers crossed that the majority of conservative courts will adhere to established precedent — and give wide discretion to agencies’ decisions to implement applicable laws — rather than scrap an environmental law and regulatory playbook that has been in place for nearly 40 years.
Depending on their outcome, the midterm election results and Supreme Court decision have the direct potential to lower Biden’s environmental sustainability agenda well below an already declining peak for the remainder of his term in office and for years to come.