Has Biden’s environmental agenda already reached its high-water mark?
Fifteen months ago, the new Biden administration launched a bevy of legislative and regulatory proposals intended to protect public health and the environment, and transform major segments of the American economy. Today, the administration faces the reality that environmental sustainability issues, once again, occupy a crossfire in the nation’s political wars leading into another election cycle.
Beneath the sound and fury, there have been many impactful decisions along with a growing list of unfulfilled promises and an increasing realization of how rapidly political capital can dissipate. This is especially true on Capitol Hill, where there is an equally divided U.S. Senate, and where Democrats expect to lose the House of Representative after the 2022 mid-term elections. In particular, separate pincer movements led by Sen. 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 achieve a 50 percent reduction in the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Even slowing the increase of such emissions has become decidedly more difficult as global energy supplies tighten and inflation increases, thus causing the administration to support short-term increases in oil and gas production.
The Biden administration’s environmental sustainability agenda — one year in — can be evaluated in three major buckets: restoration of square one, new initiatives and adaptation strategies.
Out with the old: Restoration of square one
The March 22 Washington Post’s analysis of Biden’s environmental actions noted that “the story of Biden’s first year in office is one not just of doing, but undoing.” Over the past year, agencies across the U.S. federal government have invested an enormous amount of staff time overturning 77 decisions from the Trump era and targeting an additional 93 environmentally related ones. This work has included analyzing the previous administration’s decisions, developing the scientific, economic, policy and legal rationale for replacing them, rewriting new policy proposals, subjecting them to public comment and numerous other administrative tasks that the rulemaking process requires.
Major policy reversals to date have included: re-imposing controls on methane emissions; canceling the Keystone XL pipeline; restoring California’s Clean Air Act waiver to set air pollution standards stricter than the federal government; rescinding the previous administration’s scientific “transparency” rule that limited 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 instituting stronger energy efficiency standards for a variety of appliances. Through March, according to the Washington Post’s environmental tracker analysis, the Biden administration has targeted or overturned about 75 percent of the Trump administration’s deregulatory decisions.
The Biden administration’s environmental sustainability agenda — 1 year in — can be evaluated in 3 major buckets: restoration of square one, new initiatives and adaptation strategies.
In with the new
While not always sustained in the courts or able to withstand political pressures from Capitol Hill or industry groups, the Biden administration is implementing a broad range of new environmental and energy initiatives. These have resulted from new funding approved by Congress in annual appropriations bills, the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure legislation and an assertion of executive authority across a variety of statutes. Especially significant is the mobilization of a broad number of executive branch agencies that have formerly played a secondary role in environmental policy.
Noteworthy initiatives have included:
- funding $20 billion of innovative climate technologies through an Energy Department Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations
- allocating $15 billion to replace lead and copper drinking water pipes
- investing $5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations
- providing $3.2 billion to weatherize homes
- allocating $1 billion for Great Lakes restoration
- establishing a reporting system to identify the sources and quantities of PFAS “forever chemicals”
- mandating higher fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light duty vehicles
- proposing that 40 percent of federal sustainability investments be dedicated to disadvantaged communities
- tasking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full review of environmental impacts for a planned Formosa Plastics plant near historically black communities in Louisiana
- monitoring chemical plant emissions along the lower Mississippi River
- proposing a new Securities and Exchange Commission requirement that publicly traded companies disclose the degree of financial risk from climate change, and
- announcing a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission plan (subsequently modified following objections from Manchin, Republicans and pipeline companies) to review climate impacts from new pipelines.
Championing adaptation strategies
Implementing an ambitious environmental sustainability agenda of infrastructure funding, regulatory policy proposals, legal filings and scientific assessments requires a significant rebuilding of staff competencies and financial resources across the federal government.
Agencies such as EPA face especially significant challenges due to the debilitating reductions in scientific staff and funding. The historically large sums of money available for infrastructure investments will confront a lack of skilled personnel across many agencies who must evaluate, process and implement grants to state and local governments and other funding recipients.
Accounting for its diminished political influence on Capitol Hill and the continuing need to rebuild core competencies and budgets, the Biden administration will need to develop several adaptation strategies to advance its agenda. They include:
- Continuing to hit singles and doubles. At this stage of the political calendar, it is unrealistic to expect the Biden administration to introduce sweeping new proposals that would require Congressional approval. Facing greater political headwinds, it will do well to digest what is already on its plate. And, presently, it has legal authority to do so. Updating National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone and Particulate Matter 2.5, accelerating Superfund clean-ups, expanding scientific reviews of high priority pollutants and reducing inequitable risk exposures to lower income communities and people of color can continue to provide direct, tangible evidence that government is delivering essential health and environmental benefits.
- Embracing market scale collaboration with the private sector. Much of the current progress in decarbonizing the economy and reducing other sources of pollution result from initiatives undertaken by the private sector in the absence of direct regulation. Efforts underway, for example, to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through the supply chains of global corporations, reduce single use plastics and their precursor chemicals through actions across the plastics value chain and collaborate on how to use data analytics for environmental decision making have accelerated largely without the participation of Federal agencies. What is missing in these and other private sector initiatives is a governance process that provides for minimum performance standards and transparency of results to prevent “free rider” companies from avoiding these commitments. This is a role tailored to the capabilities of government agencies that can also acquire a deeper knowledge of market innovations even as they complement the actions of leading companies.
- Developing innovative policy frameworks for a new economy. The transformation of the American economy is already underway. While the decarbonization of industry sectors, transition away from internal combustion engine technologies, modernization of the electricity grid and introduction of smart technologies to reduce energy and water consumption are years — in some cases decades — away from market-wide scale, it’s already abundantly clear that the traditional regulatory process will need to be repurposed for the new economy. Major collaboration opportunities exist to design new policy frameworks with the private sector, non-governmental organizations, state and local agencies, minority and Indigenous communities and academia. This will necessitate joint research, development of new policy tools (including those that leverage economic incentives and consumer behavior) and innovations that grow a more equitable and pollution-free economy.
Later this year, two major decisions will shape the future environmental sustainability agenda — the mid-term November elections that will determine the control of Congress for the next two years, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of West Virginia v Environmental Protection Agency.
In this case, where a decision is expected by the end of June, the court will review the delegated statutory authorities that 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 of agencies’ regulatory powers. The legal and political consequences of this decision will be historic and highly consequential to environmental policymaking.
The Biden administration has its fingers crossed that the conservative court majority will abide by established legal precedents — giving wide discretion to agency decisions on implementing current laws — rather than throwing out an environmental law and regulatory playbook that has applied for nearly 40 years.
Depending on their outcomes, the mid-term election results and the Supreme Court decision have the direct potential to sink Biden’s environmental sustainability agenda far below an already receding high water mark for the rest of its time in office and for years thereafter.
April 11, 2022 at 02:31PM
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