Energy & Environment

Biden makes early gains eroding Trump’s environmental legacy

President Biden arrives to participate in a ceremony for the late U.S. Capitol Police Officer William Evans as he lies in honor at the Capitol
Greg Nash

The Biden administration is making a dent in reversing Trump-era environmental policies but still has a long way to go in its effort to undo four years of regulatory rollbacks.

Thus far, the administration has reversed 42 actions and targeted 73, with no steps taken on another 122, according to a tracker from The Washington Post. 

But the process for undoing some of the federal rules is lengthy, meaning it could be years before the Biden administration can undo some of former President Trump’s environmental actions, many of which focused on deregulation.

“The rulemaking process takes time,” said Stan Meiburg, who was an acting deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Obama administration.

“Things like the … particulate matter standards, you’d have to really work hard to do a rulemaking on that,” he said, referring to an air pollution standard that the Trump administration declined to tighten.

Some of the Biden administration’s moves came as early as the president’s first day in office, like revoking a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and seeking to return the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement. The administration also published a list on Jan. 20 of dozens of Trump actions to review.

Since then, Biden has put forward proposals to take on some of the Trump administration’s major climate rollbacks, particularly in the transportation sector, where regulations have significant implications for climate change given that the industry is the largest source of the United States’s planet-warming emissions.

Biden officials have proposed increasing federal standards for both tailpipe emissions and vehicle mileage, which the Trump administration had gutted. But those efforts involve a two-step process: proposing near-term standards that are significantly tighter than those put forward by the Trump administration and eyeing longer-term standards.

The administration has also proposed restoring California’s ability to set its own, stricter emissions standards after they were revoked by the Trump administration.

Another Trump-era rule targeted for dismantling is one on water pollution. The Biden administration first announced that it will pursue a “foundational rule” that would restore the pre-Obama protections and is expected to later put forward a longer-term regulation.

Former President Obama expanded protections with the Waters of the U.S. rule in 2015, but the Trump administration took steps to roll back those protections, as well as others that had been in place for decades.

Meiburg said some of the hurdles facing the EPA include established regulatory timelines and the need to engage with science advisers.

“Overall I think they’re doing about as well as can be expected, and there’s both opportunities and challenges that they face,” Meiburg said.

But others say the agency is not moving fast enough.

“The Biden administration has made it clear they intend to repeal Trump’s bad Clean Water Act rule and that it’s causing significant harm, but they’re not doing it as quickly as they ought to,” Andrew Wetzler, managing director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nature program, told The Hill.

He pointed to the lack of a clear timeline on a replacement rule from the White House, “despite a flurry of regulations.”

One of the fastest methods for reversing existing rules is congressional action, but Democrats are unlikely to get that across the finish line on Capitol Hill given the limitations imposed by the Senate filibuster.

In addition to seeking to get rid of many of Trump’s environmental rollbacks, the Biden administration is also pursuing some of its own actions to protect the environment and mitigate climate change.

According to the Post’s tracker, Biden has proposed 24 new actions and taken an additional 24.

Some environmental advocates, however, argue the administration has been inconsistent with some of its early moves.

Liz Perera, climate policy director for federal policy at the Sierra Club, pointed to the administration’s rollback of Trump-era changes to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which mandates environmental analyses before major projects such as pipelines.

While the Biden administration has indicated that it may make changes to the Trump-era NEPA rules, Perera said that some actions in the White House-backed bipartisan infrastructure package undercut this move.

“They reversed Trump’s rollbacks of NEPA and then unfortunately they agreed to some of those rollbacks in the bipartisan infrastructure deal,” Perera said in an interview.

Meanwhile, there are some Trump actions that — despite broad environmental policy differences between the two leaders — the Biden administration may not seek to change.

The Biden administration has declined to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was backed by the Trump administration, after a court said it “may well be” up to the Army Corps of Engineers on whether to keep the pipeline. The administration also recently backed a permit for the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota that was approved during Trump’s presidency.

Overall, advocates say they understand that undoing all of the Trump rules won’t happen overnight but are also stressing that action is critical.

“It’s understandable that the Biden administration can’t get to all these rules in their first six months, but some of these are really critical,” he added, considering the time it takes to propose, codify and defend a rule.

Tags Barack Obama California Donald Trump EPA
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