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Biden directs agencies to review Trump actions that harm the environment, health

SNL Image

President Joe Biden signs a series of executive orders hours after his Jan. 20 inauguration.
Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News via Getty Images

Following through with a promise to make climate change a top priority, President Joe Biden late on his first day in office signed a sweeping executive order that could potentially undo much of the former administration's initiatives to achieve "energy dominance."

The Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis instructs federal agencies to review all actions taken under former President Donald Trump's four-year term that could thwart the directive's goals.

On the oil and natural gas front, the Jan. 20 order directed federal agencies to draft new methane regulations and halt leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It also revoked a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said her organization is prepared to legally challenge any subsequent moves from the Biden administration to restrict drilling on public lands, which the president has pledged to do.

"When it comes to methane regulation, certainly the administration has the authority to move forward with regulation," Sgamma said in an email. "We expect it will, and we'll engage constructively in that rulemaking process. However, regulation needs to follow the Clean Air Act."

Extraction in the crosshairs

Biden fulfilled his day-one pledge to reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector, directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to publish a proposed rule suspending, revising or rescinding the Trump-era methane rule rollback by September.

The president also ordered the agency to propose new regulations establishing "comprehensive standards of performance and emission guidelines for methane and volatile organic compound emissions from existing operations in the oil and gas sector, including the exploration and production, transmission, processing, and storage segments."

In August 2020, the Trump administration finalized rules that no longer require oil and gas companies to monitor facilities for methane leaks. Under the rule, the midstream segment no longer has to monitor for methane or volatile organic compound emissions, which are often co-emitted. The upstream segment still has to monitor for volatile organic compounds, but not methane.

While the Trump-era rules were focused on new and modified emissions sources, they also hampered the federal government's ability to establish methane regulations on existing sources, which contribute to the bulk of the industry's emissions.

Biden also instructed the U.S. Department of the Interior to put a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Interior will review the leasing program and "conduct a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program," according to the order.

The Trump administration opened up the refuge to oil and gas drilling, issuing federal leases to entities on the former president's final full day in office.

The former vice president reinstated the Obama-era withdrawal of "certain offshore areas in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling" as well.

Additionally, the executive order instructed the Interior Department to review the unprecedented move by Trump to significantly cut the size of two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and determine whether they should be restored to each of their original respective sizes.

While Trump described the move at the time as a blow against executive overreach, its legacy was questioned as new information suggested government officials were trying to allow energy development within the former monument boundaries.

Trump's vehicle, power plant rules under fire

Biden's executive order also targets another signature Trump-era deregulatory effort: a pair of final rules that weaken Obama-era vehicle emission standards and strip California of its waiver authority to set its own tough tailpipe rules

With the U.S. transportation sector now the nation's leading source of greenhouse gases, tighter vehicle emission standards with an emphasis on electric vehicles represent one of the Biden administration's greatest opportunities to cut carbon emissions in connection with rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Vice President Kamala Harris' home state of California is already aiming to discontinue the sale of gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035, a plan that will require the EPA's approval under the Clean Air Act.

The executive order also covers a revised finding that scrapped the legal basis for Obama-era mercury controls on power plants, a move seen by critics as an attempt to limit the EPA's consideration of public health co-benefits that flow from Clean Air Act rules.

Other energy, climate orders

The executive order also directed the U.S. Department of Energy to propose major revisions to four separate rulemakings on energy conservation and efficiency standards.

Biden asked the DOE to propose major changes by March to its energy conservation program for appliance standards and test procedures for consumer products and commercial/industrial equipment, with any remaining revisions to be proposed by June.

In early 2020, the Trump administration finalized changes to the appliance standards program and test procedures that were blasted by energy efficiency advocates. Critics said the revisions would make setting new energy efficiency standards for common appliances much more difficult and give too much deference to industry-developed test procedures.

The Jan. 20 executive order also directed the White House's Council on Environmental Quality to rescind its June 2019 draft guidance on how greenhouse gas impacts would be considered under the National Environmental Policy Act. The draft guidance significantly reduced the potential scope and scale of how federal agencies weigh the greenhouse gas impacts of infrastructure projects needing federal approvals under NEPA, a policy stance seemingly at odds with Biden's push to slash carbon emissions.

In another blow to Trump's deregulatory efforts, the executive order established an interagency working group to calculate the social cost of different greenhouse gases. Those figures will help agencies determine the costs and benefits of climate-relevant regulatory actions.

Biden asked the working group to publish interim per-ton social costs for carbon, nitrous oxide and methane within 30 days of the Jan. 20 executive order, with final costs determined by January 2022. The action reverses the Trump administration's decision in 2017 to disband a prior interagency working group on the social cost of carbon and drastically slash the government's estimate of the per-ton social costs of CO2.

In a separate executive order on Jan. 20, Biden revoked a Trump administration directive for federal agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for every new one they formed. Opponents of the Trump-era mandate said it would weaken or eliminate needed regulations to protect the environment and potentially force agencies to repeal rules formed in response to laws passed by Congress.