President Joe Biden

Can Biden undo Trump’s environmental harm?

Caption: Some of the 11th hour environmental rule changes are easier to undo than others, but Joe Biden will take them one at a time. Credit: jlhervàs, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the last minute changes the Trump administration has wrought that are hurting the environment and efforts to battle global warming? And will the Biden administration be able to undo them?— Tim Jeffries, Sarasota, FL

President Joe Biden has ambitious plans to make up for lost time with climate remediation and encouragement of the clean energy sector—including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord that Trump withdrew the U.S from in 2017. Biden will also be looking to clean up some shorter-term environmental messes left by the Trump White House in its final days.

One of the more egregious of Trump’s last minute anti-environment moves is the “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information Rule,” a mouthful, for sure and innocent-sounding, perhaps: It stipulates that publicly released scientific data should take preference over studies that keep their data confidential.

But, according to The Washington Post, many researchers and academic organizations say that the criteria “will actually restrict the EPA from using some of the most consequential research on human subjects because it often includes confidential medical records and other proprietary data that cannot be released because of privacy concerns.” Says Chris Zarba, former director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, in the same Post article: “It sounds good on the surface. But this is a bold attempt to get science out of the way so special interests can do what they want.”

Another change pushed through by Trump at the last minute is a significant reduction in environmental and safety requirements for Arctic oil exploration. Native tribes there are especially incensed by this move, and have taken to social media in droves to win support against it. Given the sheer volume of public opposition, it will likely take many weeks before any auctions for these drilling rights leases could be finalized, thus giving the Biden administration a chance to take action before a disaster takes place. 

Similarly, Trump has also just proposed to strip protections from millions of acres of California’s desert to open up mining projects, which would destroy native ecosystems and conservation lands. California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has already pledged to “work with the new administration to immediately block this rule change” which jeopardizes a bi-partisan desert conservation plan years in the making that carefully balances recreational use, energy production and preservation.

On the bright side, President Biden has already issued executive orders for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, to direct federal agencies to consider revising vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards, and to cancel permits for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. After cleaning up Trump’s mess, which could take anywhere from weeks to years, Biden also aims to implement his own omnibus climate package similar to the proposed Green New Deal. Biden’s plan calls for increasing electric vehicle usage, expanding wind and solar energy markets, creating millions of new jobs in sustainable energy, and paving the path to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

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