Dear EarthTalk: Are environmental advocates happy with the Biden administration so far?
—B.C., Philadelphia, PA
Overall, environmental advocates are much happier with Joe Biden in the White House than Donald Trump, given his administration’s interest in pursuing sustainability and climate goals. Indeed, on Day One Biden wasted no time making good on several environmentally related campaign promises. He signed executive orders rejoining the Paris climate accord (Trump had pulled us out in 2017), revoking the permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (green-lighted by Trump in 2017), and halting construction of Trump’s infamous border wall that among other things restricted the habitat range of wildlife already struggling to hang on in the drought-stricken, warming-addled Southwest.
While Biden couldn’t get everything done in a day, his administration has kept its eye on the conservation ball ever since. In early September, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was restoring protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The Trump administration had blocked those protections in a shortsighted effort to pave the way for construction of a massive gold mine threatening the world’s largest sockeye salmon run as well as ecosystems for hundreds of miles around. The Biden administration has also proposed cancelling controversial Trump-era petroleum drilling leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s unclear whether this provision will remain in the larger Congressional budget reconciliation bill it’s currently tied to given potential Republican backlash.
Another big move lauded by greens just weeks ago was Biden’s executive order restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah to their original boundaries; Trump had reduced them by 80 and 50 percent respectively. Eco-advocates also cheered Biden’s move to restore federal rules designed to guide environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects that the Trump administration had scaled back in order to “fast-track” construction permit approvals. Additionally, Biden has pledged to overturn Trump-era rollbacks of endangered species protections so as to preserve the ability of the federal government to designate lands as critical wildlife habitat regardless of their development potential.
While many are pleased with Biden’s actions so far, others worry they are too little too late. Activists from the grassroots Build Back Fossil Free campaign, which includes Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, decry the Biden White House for not already using executive orders to stop fossil fuel project approvals and declare a climate emergency. According to a recent analysis by the research and advocacy organization Oil Change International, Biden could stop at least 24 major fossil fuel development projects with the stroke of a pen (including the controversial Line 3 and Dakota Access pipelines) and save upwards of 1.6 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions—the equivalent of taking all the cars and trucks off U.S. roads for a year.
“We are out of time for the president to take his executive powers off the shelf,” says Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Anything less is leaving a scorched future for people and our planet.”
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