What Biden’s presidency means for California’s environment

A pelican flies through the air above Malibu Lagoon on Jan. 12, 21. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
A brown pelican — a species that recovered from near-extinction after being protected by the Endangered Species Act — flies above Malibu Lagoon on Jan. 12, 21. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Like a defeated and retreating army, Trump administration officials left Washington, D.C., burning and shredding environmental laws and policies even as they walked out the door.

The scorched earth policy of unraveling Obama-era initiatives in favor of widespread deregulation began four years ago, and entailed many dozens of rules and policies. Included are rollbacks of regulations that protect endangered wildlife, migratory birds and wetlands, and regulate clean air, planet-warming gases and energy efficiency.

California Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld called it “vandalism.”   

“We thought the world had ended after (President George W.) Bush, but it looks like a picnic compared to what Trump’s done,” Blumenfeld told CalMatters. “It’s been very surgical, very intentional and incredibly comprehensive.”

Now President Joe Biden’s cabinet is left with the task of eliminating so many environmental rollbacks that it will have to perform triage: The Trump administration and Congress took at least 175 actions to roll back climate change rules and policies, plus several dozen that regulate other environmental problems, according to trackers compiled by Harvard and Columbia University.

The president suggested that nearly every move by the Trump administration related to the environment merits a second look: He immediately ordered federal agencies to review scores of federal actions taken during the last four years to determine if they harmed public health or the environment.

“It is…the policy of my Administration to listen to science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable…,” Biden wrote in an executive order on his first day in office.

Biden immediately rejoined the Paris climate agreement for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And he reconstituted a governmental group to examine the impacts of greenhouse gases on public health and social justice.

He also issued a directive to his staff to “consider revising vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards.” California has the nation’s worst air quality, so this issue is arguably one of the most pressing environmental problems facing the state.

He also ordered a review of Trump rules that relaxed limits on methane leaks from oil and gas operations and loosened some energy efficiency standards.

The cascade of rollbacks in Trump’s last days in office left plenty for the new president to undo. The feds have an ally in their coming work: California backstops some of the regulatory unraveling with its own laws.

The state also has been leading the legal charge to halt many of them, including relaxed air quality and pesticide regulations. On a single day — the day before the inauguration — California filed suit against the Trump administration nine times, seeking to overturn its last-minute moves to weaken national environmental laws and policies.

“In the past few years, the White House abdicated its responsibility on key issues like climate change, wildfires, and infrastructure. But every time we lacked for a partner, California stepped up anyway. We accelerated our clean car efforts and made record investments in wildfire mitigation,” Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to Biden the day before his inauguration.

How long and how difficult will it be for Biden to reverse rollbacks and fix the environmental damage they have caused? There’s no easy answer.

Midnight mischief — last-minute actions by a lame-duck — can generally be undone quickly through executive order or sometimes swift congressional action. In addition to the directives he issued in his first day in office, Biden pledged to freeze the last-minute “midnight regulations” that had yet to take effect.

Other policies and guidance documents can be rapidly rewritten via executive order. But some will need to follow new federal rulemaking procedures and public comment periods that can take years. 

The Biden administration also can stop defending cases in which the Trump administration has been sued, and then begin the process of remaking a new rule. 

For instance, with only days left, the Trump administration proposed to undo a California desert protection plan that took decades to develop. The changes would remove protection of more than 2 million acres, allow for mining operations and strip additional conservation safeguards from another 2 million acres near Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.

The new administration can simply allow an unfinalized, last-minute proposed rule like this to wither on the vine.

What about the first 100 days? Biden’s campaign laid out a 100-day to-do list and pledged to fund nearly $2 trillion in environmental initiatives. Among the elements of the Biden environmental agenda:

  • Achieve 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050
  • Include climate change considerations in foreign policy and national security plans
  • Focus on environmental justice and public health
  • Reduce emissions from cars and trucks and encourage fuel efficiency
  • Wean the country off fossil fuels and discontinue new domestic oil and gas drilling

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

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