Energy & Environment

Biden would face hurdles undoing Trump environmental rollbacks


If Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected president, his administration will likely take aim at the Trump administration’s rollbacks of many major environmental protections.

Biden’s climate plan lays out actions he would take on Day One like implementing “aggressive” methane pollution limits from the oil and gas sector and developing “rigorous” fuel economy standards.

Environmental advocates say the former vice president should target rules that have the biggest effects on climate change and those that are most harmful to marginalized communities.

Yet because of complexities in the rulemaking process — along with structural changes implemented by the Trump administration — undoing even just some of Trump’s environmental rollbacks could take years.

The Trump administration has moved to reverse 100 environmental rules, according to a New York Times analysis from June. Those efforts have included replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with a rule that reduced the regulatory burdens on coal-fired power plants, slashing mileage and emissions standards for automakers and eliminating methane requirements for oil and gas producers.

A recent analysis from researchers with Rhodium Group estimated that rollbacks promulgated by the Trump administration could cause the release of an extra 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

The analysis highlighted the administration’s loosening of fuel economy requirements, its weakening of methane emissions regulations and its decision to prevent California from setting statewide emissions standards. Those steps were among the moves most likely to be the biggest contributors to increased greenhouse gas emissions, according to the analysis.

The Biden campaign directed The Hill to the candidate’s climate plan when asked about which Trump actions Biden would tackle first. The plan lists a series of actions it would undertake immediately, including changes to the Trump administration’s methane limits and fuel economy standards.

Biden’s plan also says he would ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and rejoin the Paris climate agreement.

Additionally, Biden backs “aggressive” new efficiency standards on buildings and home appliances, as well as requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and aiming to conserve 30 percent of federal lands and waters by 2030.

Many of the objectives outlined by the Biden campaign are in line with those of environmental groups, though some organizations are warning that simply returning to the standards of the Obama administration is not enough.

“There’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of work to do to fix all of the rollbacks to regulatory infrastructure that’s taken place under Trump and … even that is not enough,” said Bracken Hendricks, a co-founder of Evergreen, a group started by former advisers to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

Hendricks argued that what should be prioritized first are taking on actions that have caused the greatest amount of emissions in general and those that have disproportionately and cumulatively harmed certain communities. 

“Some communities are getting it from all sides, and so there’s more to look at than just increasing the explosion of total average emissions nationally. We really do have to look at key hot spots where people are suffering disproportionately,” he said. 

Hendricks listed Trump administration rules relating to vehicle emissions and efficiency, methane emissions, air toxics and mercury emissions from coal plants as some of the first rollbacks he would undo, noting that issues relating to loosening standards on industrial emissions and the disclosure of those emissions are likely to greatly impact vulnerable communities.

If Democrats win back the Senate in November, that could allow a Democratic Congress to pass legislation that’s less susceptible to court challenges like the kinds facing the Trump administration now.

“[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is right there, as the climate obstructionist in chief in the Senate,” said Craig Auster, the League of Conservation Voters senior director for political affairs. 

“We need to keep and expand the majority in the House, we need to flip the Senate and elect Joe Biden because otherwise we’re not going to have the policies we need to have to address climate change,” he said. 

In order to pass major environmental bills, some say the filibuster, which can be used to block legislation that doesn’t have 60 votes, must be eliminated.

But getting rid of the procedural tool is seen by some as a long shot given opposition from some Democrats.

If a Biden administration must rely on the rulemaking process to undo Trump’s actions, it could set up a long battle and possible court challenges.

Joseph Goffman, an Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency lawyer, said the rulemaking process usually takes 18 to 36 months. 

Goffman, now the executive director of Harvard Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Program, said it may be slightly quicker to undo rules that are still facing court challenges when Biden takes office since the new administration can choose not to defend them.

However, he said, Biden administration rules could get tied up or halted in court, meaning implementation could take even longer.

The Trump administration has taken or is in the process of carrying out changes that could further hamstring a Biden administration. It is changing how the benefits of emissions reductions are calculated, and it has proposed a rule aimed at changing what scientific studies are considered in rulemaking. 

“Some of these changes would require the successor administration to have to do more homework,” Goffman said. 

“A lot of these changes would not ultimately stop a Democratic, pro-environment administration from taking the actions it wanted to take,” he said, though he acknowledged it would make it “more challenging.”

Some environmentalists say these rules could be the first undone by a Biden administration, since it would make it easier to carry out its other actions. 

“There are some things that the Trump administration did that sort of tried to fundamentally alter the … ability to put public health and the environment first and to use sound science,” said John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s Global Climate policy director.

“Some of those may need to come first or may need to be repaired as part of initial rulemakings so that they can sort of proceed again grounded in sound science,” Coequyt said, noting that he was referring to “more of a category than something that’s easily fixed by one rulemaking.”

Updated at 11:37 a.m.

Tags Climate change Jay Inslee Joe Biden Mitch McConnell

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