Unpacking Biden’s New Environmental Executive Orders

The president’s latest executive actions put a pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal acres and set an aggressive conservation goal.

For the second time in as many weeks, President Joe Biden issued sweeping executive orders to confront global climate change and other environmental crises.

The orders elevate climate change as a key foreign policy and national security priority, temporarily pause new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, and set a national goal of protecting 30% of America’s land and water by 2030. The orders are part of a blitz of early executive actions unraveling former President Donald Trump’s legacy, from his botched response to the coronavirus pandemic to his ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

“Today is climate day at the White House, which means that today is jobs day at the White House,” Biden said, kicking off a signing ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the White House. “In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can’t wait any longer.”

Environmentalists are celebrating the latest orders as confirmation that climate will continue to be a top priority of the new Biden administration.

“He’s gotten straight to work reversing the devastating ignorance of science and catastrophic environmental rollbacks over the last four years,” Natalie Mebane, associate director of policy at 350.org, said in a statement.

Biden’s latest actions will:

Put A Freeze On New Federal Oil And Gas Leases

The order directs the secretary of the Interior Department to pause “to the extent possible” new oil and gas leasing activity on federal lands and offshore waters. It also kicks off a “rigorous review of all existing leasing and permitting practices related to fossil fuel development on public lands and waters,” according to the administration.

The action does not impact existing federal leases or drilling activity on state, private and tribal lands.

Experts say the move is unlikely to severely impact the oil and gas sector, which maintains drilling rights on more than 20 million federal acres not yet in production and stockpiled hundreds of federal leases and permits in the waning days of Trump’s tenure.

“The licenses that currently are operating are not going to be disrupted,” Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Energy, said during her confirmation hearing Wednesday. “They will continue to operate. The oil and gas industry in particular, they have 10,000 licenses. They can continue to permit and deploy.”

An oil pumpjack is seen near Aneth, Utah. More than half of the 26 million federal acres leased to the oil and gas industry are not being used for production, <a href="https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/fact-sheet-president-biden-take-action-uphold-commitment-restore-balance-public-lands" target="_blank" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="according" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="60119658c5b61cb953506af8" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/fact-sheet-president-biden-take-action-uphold-commitment-restore-balance-public-lands" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="6">according</a> to the Interior Department.
An oil pumpjack is seen near Aneth, Utah. More than half of the 26 million federal acres leased to the oil and gas industry are not being used for production, according to the Interior Department.
Andrew Cullen / Reuters

Still, the industry and its allies have slammed Biden’s order as an attack on American energy and jobs.

“Halting production on federal lands and waters will not halt the demand for energy or the products we depend on,” Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said in a call with reporters. “It will simply shift it away from states with federal lands to those without, or even to foreign sources, and in the process cause a great deal of economic harm to those states.”

Again, the order does not halt production, but rather pauses new leasing.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Biden’s nominee to lead the Interior Department, is likely to lead the administrative review of fossil fuel leasing and permitting. A vocal proponent of the Green New Deal, Haaland has said she is “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.”

Direct Agencies To Eliminate Fossil Fuel Subsidies

That same action orders federal agencies to “eliminate fossil fuel subsidies” and “identify new opportunities to spur innovation, commercialization, and deployment of clean technologies and infrastructure.”

“Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to big oil to the tune of $40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies,” Biden said Wednesday. “We’re going to take money and invest it in clean energy jobs in America.”

This could be easier said than done. The federal government funnels nearly $15 billion a year to oil, gas and coal companies in the form of tax breaks and subsidies, according to research from the climate advocacy group Oil Change International. That’s on top of the roughly $5 billion states give out each year. But some policymakers have taken a broader view of what constitutes a subsidy, leading to outlandishly high estimates of the federal benefits fossil fuel companies enjoy. Debates over what to cut, and what the effect may be on consumers, could slow or even derail the process of paring down federal support for fossil fuels, and the order’s vague language doesn’t offer much guidance.

Set A ‘30x30’ Conservation Target

Following through on another campaign promise, Biden’s order set a national goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and oceans by 2030 ― a move scientists at home and abroad say will go a long way toward combating the dual climate and extinction crises.

Earlier this week, more than 400 state and local elected officials from 43 states signed an open letter to the Biden administration pledging to do their part to achieve the target. Those officials stressed the importance of upholding Native American tribal sovereignty and supporting local and private landowner conservation efforts as part of the effort.

Biden’s order establishes a process for engaging with a broad range of stakeholders, including states, tribes, farmers and anglers.

“The 30x30 initiative will help communities build a thriving natural network that provides refuge for wildlife, safeguards our food systems and drinking water, ensures equitable access to nature and absorbs carbon from our atmosphere,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society.

A bird research camp is pictured in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A bird research camp is pictured in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Ho New / Reuters

Make Climate A National Security, Foreign Policy Priority

In 2017, the Trump administration removed climate change from the government’s list of national security threats, ignoring the very real threat that the crisis poses to military installations and the nation as a whole.

Biden’s order both restores climate action as a matter of urgent national security and further commits the U.S. to help lead the global fight to combat the worsening threat. On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order to reenter the U.S. into the Paris climate agreement, a global pact to rein in greenhouse gas emissions that Trump withdrew the U.S. from.

Earlier this week, John Kerry, the president’s climate envoy, told world leaders gathered at a global climate summit that the U.S. is “proud to be back” at the table and will “do everything in our power to make up for” the last four years.

“The stakes on climate change just simply couldn’t be any higher than they are right now. It is existential,” Kerry said during a press briefing Wednesday. “President Biden is deeply committed, totally seized, by this issue.”

Establish An Environmental Justice Office

The order creates a White House interagency council on environmental justice, as well as new or strengthened environmental justice offices within the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services.

“With this executive order, environmental justice will be at the center of all we do addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color,” Biden said.

These so-called “fenceline” communities will receive 40% of federal investments in clean water and green infrastructure.

Create A New ‘Climate Conservation Corps’

Approximately one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, according to federal data.

Recognizing the potential for public lands to help combat climate change, the Biden order calls for creating a Civilian Climate Corps that would “put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation, and addressing the changing climate.”

It would be a modern take on the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Great Depression-era federal program that put hundreds of thousands of young, unmarried men to work building bridges and dams and planting trees.

... And A Lot Of Other Potentially Well-Paying Jobs.

One of the biggest problems for the clean-energy industry is that fossil fuel jobs are significantly more unionized and pay higher wages. Workers in many states have tried to organize at wind and solar jobs. But the loosening of labor laws over the past four decades made that process challenging, meaning long-standing jobs on coal trains, in oil fields, and at refineries are more likely to have union representation and the hard-fought wages and protections that come with it.

Biden’s order on federal spending seeks to change that dynamic. The order directs federal agencies to decarbonize by buying carbon-free electricity and zero-emissions vehicles. But it goes a step further, requiring those purchases be “Made in America” and directing agencies to “apply and strictly enforce” prevailing wages and benefits for that work and to “ensure that any jobs created with funds to address the climate crisis are good jobs with a choice to join a union.”

Elevate Scientists To Federal Leadership

Under Trump, the White House gutted the Office of Science and Technology Policy, downsizing its workforce from 135 to 45 officials. Biden signed a memorandum on Wednesday to beef up the White House office and give it a broader mandate in the administration, directing it to “review the effectiveness of agency scientific-integrity policies and practices.”

The action calls on all agencies that “oversee, direct, or fund research” to designate a senior agency employee as “Chief Science Officer to ensure agency research programs are scientifically and technologically well founded and conducted with integrity.”

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