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Consequential Biden Actions Nobody Is Talking About

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | January 22, 2021, 3:18 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Priorities for the Biden Administration

The first 24 hours of the administration of President Joe Biden were filled not only with ceremony, but also with real action. Executive orders and other directives were quickly signed. More actions have followed. All consequential.  Many provide a basis for not just undoing actions of the previous administration, but also making real advances in public policy to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

These first executive orders address huge challenges—the pandemic, climate change, racial justice, and economic uncertainty. Among these actions, President Biden also issued a critically important order on “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” which includes some provisions that have received much less attention than they warrant. They go to the heart of much of UCS’ work and advocacy.

Section 1 of the order is clear and inspiring:

“Policy. Our Nation has an abiding commitment to empower our workers and communities; promote and protect our public health and the environment; and conserve our national treasures and monuments, places that secure our national memory.  Where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice.  In carrying out this charge, the Federal Government must be guided by the best science and be protected by processes that ensure the integrity of Federal decision-making.  It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the 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, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.” (emphasis added)

Music to my ears. Listening to the science is not just about the pandemic, it is about serving the needs of the public. For protecting public health and safety in our communities. For worker safety.  For protections for all with justice and equity, particularly communities of color and low-income communities that have long suffered much of the burden of pollution and environmental harms. These are exactly the changes that UCS has been advocating for and will pay enormous dividends in improving public health and safety, with specific attention to ensuring those benefits are for all communities.

As ordered by our president, all agencies and departments in the Executive Branch must immediately review and address actions taken between January 20, 2017 and January 20,2021 that conflict with these policy goals. And suspend, revise, or rescind those found to be in conflict with the new president’s policy goals as soon as possible.

For example, these actions will include, but are not limited to:

  • Reversing the climate- and health-harming rollback of methane emissions standards
  • Redoing the fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and light trucks that were gutted under the last administration, while also moving forward with ambitious standards that will dramatically reduce emissions and increase transportation electrification in the future.
  • Reconsidering rollbacks of energy efficiency standards
  • Undoing attacks on mercury and air toxics standards for coal plants
  • Reconsidering changes to the way costs and benefits are calculated
  • Revoking the rule that limits the science that the EPA can use in rulemaking.
  • Reestablishing the interagency working group on the “social cost of greenhouse gas emissions to determine the social benefits of limiting global warming as critical input to evaluating regulatory proposals, and requiring an interim SCC, SCN and SCM within 30 days which will be used until final values are published.
  • Erasing the shortcutting of environmental reviews of federal projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Within 30 days agencies must submit a full list of actions from the last four years that will be considered for review and revision or cancellation within the next year.

(Measured) excitement at UCS

I danced around the room with my dogs at the push toward restoring NEPA analyses. Doing a thorough NEPA analysis, which the shortcuts held back, means that agencies must seek public input more extensive than just notice and public comment during the rulemaking process. And critically it means that alternatives to a proposed action must be considered and vetted with the public, with the full analysis available to anyone who wants to understand the ramifications of a particular policy action. That includes, now with the new order, considering the impacts of climate change and on environmental justice. We need these analyses and public discussion—they are a key part of decisionmaking in our constitutional democracy.

I am definitely not the only one at UCS who gets excited by these wonky, technical pronouncements.

My colleague Jonna Hamilton raised a glass to toast the drive to more ambitious fuel economy and emissions standards, saying it’s time to ensure that the auto companies make the next generation of vehicles that consumers want to drive.  Strong standards will help the transition to electric vehicles, which reduce emissions, no matter where they are charged.

Rachel Cleetus breathed a sigh of relief that the government will be restoring the use of the social cost of carbon (and the social cost of methane and the social cost of nitrous oxide) for regulatory purposes. And that the Council on Environmental Quality will be updating its guidance on the consideration of greenhouse gases for NEPA analyses. With 2020 ending the hottest decade on record globally, and bringing a record-breaking 22 extreme weather and climate related disasters in the US that killed at least 262 people and each cost more than a billion dollars, it’s high time we took the costs of climate change seriously!

And Gretchen Goldman, swinging her young sons in the air in joy, was thrilled to see that  revoking the limits on science was named as a top priority of the Biden administration! The so-called Transparency rule would do widespread damage to the EPA’s ability to use the best available science on everything from air pollution standards to pesticide regulation. Finding a way to get rid of this harmful rule will allow the EPA to fully carry out its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

This order does a lot more to revoke bad policies. It also calls on the Secretary of the Interior to review the national monuments with a view to restoring them to 2017 boundaries. It declares the environmental review of oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge inadequate, placing a moratorium on leasing. It revokes the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline because it is inconsistent with the economic and climate goals of the new administration. And part of those stated goals as laid out in the policy section of the order includes respecting the voices of the Indigenous communities whose lands, livelihoods, and culture were given short shrift in the permitting process to date.

Another less noticed, even wonkier, remarkable Day One action

Another Presidential Directive of critical importance to the mission and work of UCS is entitled “Modernizing Regulatory Review.” It calls for the Office of Management and Budget, through its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), to re-focus the role and content of reviews of regulations proposed by federal agencies.

The new process OIRA is tasked with designing and implementing in consultation with agencies across the government will:

  • Reflect new developments in science
  • Fully account for benefits of regulations that are difficult to quantify
  • Take into account the distributional consequences of regulations to ensure they appropriately benefit, and not inappropriately burden, disadvantaged, vulnerable or marginalized communities
  • Find ways for OIRA to work more proactively and effectively with agencies to obtain the benefits to the public that come with regulatory initiatives
  • Improve efficiency, transparency, and inclusiveness in the interagency review process

For example, consider the review of the previous administration’s rules that would limit the science that the EPA can use as the basis for implementing public health protections. That rule requires that the underlying data of any study be publicly available to be fully considered by the agency. That would necessarily exclude studies that rely on confidential health information in most cases, or give those studies lower credence, not on the basis of their scientific merit, but because of an artificial barrier labeled as “transparency” concerns.  OIRA has reviewed both the proposed and final rules and deemed them not economically significant, despite the fact that they affect all of the work that EPA does. Under an improved review process, the rule would have never moved through the process because it will in fact overburden, yet again, vulnerable communities.

Though OIRA’s work is often behind the scenes and rarely fully acknowledged, the agency plays a critical role in either advancing or hindering the regulatory process. In order for the Biden administration to meet its goals on climate, the pandemic, racial justice, and economic recovery, that process has to become better and more effective.  OIRA involvement must add real value to the benefit of the public. It is heartening and remarkable that this directive is a Day One action of the new administration.

Toward real action

By no means do the first executive orders accomplish the huge tasks before this administration. But it is an extraordinarily good start.

Now these orders need to turn into real actions from top to bottom in the federal government and in partnership with state and tribal governments as well as internationally. None of the challenges we face will be solved without action at all levels.

Our excitement at UCS is tempered by the enormous amount of work that needs to turn this promising vision into a reality. We will make our voices heard to hold the administration and Congress to account.  Please join us in doing so.

Photo courtesy of A.T. Cross Luxury Pens

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  • What I just posted is why Tom Vilsack is the wrong choice for Agriculture Secretary. Better would be Ray Archuleta or anyone who can lead farmers down the regenerative path rather than perpetuate chemical agriculture.

  • A new direction for climate needs to be biochar and char as farm and infrastructure material respectively to stabilize carbon for thousands of years. See Burn: How Fire can Cool the Earth by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper. Also regenerative farming not just for healthier food but also carbon sequestration. Study Ray Archuleta, John Kempf, Gabe Brown, Dr. David Johnson, Walter Jehne to fill in the science and empirical evidence and methods used.