Editor’s note: This is a follow-up story to coverage of six key environmental protections the Trump administration rescinded or proposed to rescind beginning in 2017. We will track and report on developments around these decisions as the Biden administration pursues its environmental policy agenda.
This is a developing story. We’ll make updates as the Biden administration takes action on key environmental rollbacks.
In President Joe Biden’s first few months in office, he’s made significant strides to safeguard the environment and help slow a warming climate. Among them, he’s reentered the United States in the Paris agreement, proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure plan that earmarks money for clean energy sources, and pledged to conserve 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. His actions come on the heels of an administration that made historic decisions to downplay concerns around climate and the environment. Former President Donald Trump dismantled more than 100 environmental protections, including one that preserves the public’s ability to provide input on major infrastructure projects that affect natural places.
At the beginning of 2020, we wrote about six of the environmental rollbacks that have particular significance to recreationists and people vulnerable to climate change. With the Biden administration in place and new agency leaders at the helm, many of these rollbacks are being undone or amended in the name of slowing the progression of climate change and promoting access and equity across our nation’s public lands. Click through the article to learn more about changes to the six environmental rollbacks we first covered in 2020.
Regulating Methane Emissions
AT A GLANCE
- Policy: Oil and Natural Gas Sector: Emission Standards for New, Reconstructed and Mobile Sources
- Agency: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Background: The Trump administration relaxed Obama-era restrictions on methane in August 2020.
- Update: In June, President Biden signed legislation to regulate methane emissions from new drilling sites, undoing the changes Donald Trump put into place during his presidency. On Tuesday, in response to an executive order from Biden, the EPA released proposed rules to regulate methane emissions from existing sites built before 2015, when the Obama-era rules were first put in place.
The latest: The Biden administration on Tuesday took steps to curb methane emissions, a planet-warming gas that’s even more potent than carbon. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP26) in Glasglow, Biden joined more than 100 countries in pledging to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 as part of a Global Methane Pledge in partnership with the European Union. On the same day, the EPA released proposed rules to curb methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells. The long-awaited rules would regulate methane emissions of both new and existing sources.
Why does it matter? Methane is the primary component in natural gas and is more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s emitted from oil and gas operations; agricultural practices such as raising cattle; and organic waste decay in landfills. But because methane doesn’t last long in the atmosphere, removing it can have an immediate impact on the climate in the near term, experts say. Regulating it is seen as a critical step in meeting the targets of the Paris climate agreement.
Scientists say controlling methane is crucial to help check climate change and can show immediate benefits. Through changes to policy, human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by up to 45% this decade, according to a U.N. report released in May. Such a reduction would prevent a nearly 0.3°C increase in the global temperature by 2045, supporting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the planet’s temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F).
The background: The Trump administration relaxed Obama-era restrictions on methane in August 2020. In June, President Biden signed legislation to reinstate the regulations for new drilling sites that were undone by the Trump administration. Those rules required oil companies to limit methane leaks from new sources. Congress passed that measure using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to undo rules passed shortly before a new administration, without having to clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate required for most legislation.
About the proposed EPA rule: The proposed rule would update emission reduction requirements for new sources of oil and gas, according to an EPA news release. It would also require that states develop plans for limiting emissions from existing sources built before 2015.
These pre-2015 sites account for about 90% of methane leaks, according to Darin Schroeder, attorney at the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental organization.
Agency officials expect the proposed rule to reduce 41 million tons of methane emissions from 2023 to 2035—more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from all U.S. passenger cars and commercial aircraft in 2019, according to a statement.
What they’re saying: Some larger oil and gas companies earlier this year expressed support for the new regulations, including BP and Exxon. After Biden signed the legislation in June, BP tweeted: “Direct federal regulation of methane is critical for reducing emissions and helping the U.S. meet its climate goals.”
Exxon Mobil Corp. said in a statement in January: “We are pleased that President Biden has prioritized reducing methane emissions as part of his administration’s plan to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement—which we support.”
However, the sentiment isn’t shared throughout the oil-and-gas sector. Smaller companies with thinner profit margins may have a tougher time absorbing the cost of the regulations, said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents oil and gas producers. He added that these companies should have a different set of rules for detecting and managing leaks.
However, Schroeder said following emissions regulations should just be part of doing business in the sector, and small operators shouldn’t be exempt from standards that prevent methane leaks.
What’s next: The public can comment on the proposed rule for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The agency plans to issue a final rule before the end of 2022.
Paris Climate Accord
AT A GLANCE
- Policy: Paris climate accord
- Agency: Executive branch
- Background: The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the international agreement in a process that finalized on Nov. 4, 2020
- Update: The U.S. rejoined the Paris Agreement and committed to new climate targets
President Joe Biden has committed the U.S. to ambitious new climate goals to slow the worst effects of climate change. On Thursday, he pledged to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by half of 2005 levels by 2030. He announced this goal as part of the nation’s commitment under the Paris climate accord, which the U.S. officially rejoined in February four months after the country left the agreement under the Trump administration.
The international accord, signed in Paris in 2015, holds nearly 200 participating nations accountable for meeting climate targets to help slow global warming. The goal is to limit the planet’s temperature increase to at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F), while attempting to hit a more ambitious goal of capping it at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F). Scientists say that’s needed to help mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Experts warn that unchecked emissions will have widespread, negative impacts on the planet. A warming climate has already contributed to an increase in droughts, hurricanes and torrential rain, and a decrease in biodiversity.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord during his time in office, saying it placed unfair environmental standards and economic burdens on American businesses and workers, and would cost the U.S. trillions. The U.S. formally withdrew in November 2020.
However, President Biden recommitted the nation to the agreement hours after his inauguration in January, and the U.S. officially rejoined in February.
Biden’s new target is consistent with his goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and to limit the global temperature increase. The administration’s National Climate Task Force, created in January to help address the climate crisis, developed the target and will be rolling it into a national climate strategy later this year.
“This is a moral imperative. An economic imperative,” Biden said of tackling the climate crisis in a speech at Thursday’s Leaders Summit on Climate. “A moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities. Time is short, but I believe we can do this. And I believe we will do this.”
Setting this new emissions-reduction target, known as a nationally determined contribution or NDC, is a key part of reentering the climate accord. All nations in the Paris agreement commit to these targets, which essentially outline the nations’ individual efforts and hold them accountable. They set new goals every five years. The most recent goals were announced in 2020, though the U.S. is a year behind due to the previous administration’s decision to pull out of the accord. Setting new targets aimed at 2030 keeps nations on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Following China, the U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to WRI, with the E.U. not far behind. Together, the three contribute more than half of total global emissions. To put this in perspective, the bottom 100 countries together account for only 3.5%.
Michael Lazarus, senior scientist and director of the Stockholm Environmental Institute’s U.S. Center, said the U.S. and other nations have a long way to go to meet their climate targets. The U.S. was behind on enacting meaningful climate policy even before Trump took office. While the global pandemic helped lower emissions by slowing the economy, those benefits are short
“From a politics and implementation standpoint, it won’t be an easy lift,” he said. Even so, ahead of Biden’s announcement, he said that it’s still feasible to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change.
Since January, Biden has taken other steps to address the climate crisis that ladder up to the country’s new target. In January, for instance, he established an Office of Domestic Climate Policy led by Gina McCarthy, the former Environmental Protection Agency director under President Barack Obama. She also chairs the National Climate Task Force.
Biden also announced a goal to achieve a 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. Right now, about 38% of U.S. electricity is generated from carbon-free sources—19% from nuclear and 18% from renewables—with the rest coming from fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.
Transitioning to zero-emission vehicles will also be part of meeting the new climate target. David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, said this transition is a major undertaking. He noted the complexity of building out the power grid to accommodate zero-emission vehicles. “There’s no question that it’s feasible,” he added. “But we’re going to have to have quite significant shifts in policy and even in politics.”
Lazarus said it’s important to make the policy shift this decade, because it will take time for vehicle stock to turn over. It will also take considerable investment, but the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure bill could help, Lazarus said. In addition to earmarking trillions for major repairs to bridges, roads and pipes, the proposed bill would invest in clean energy sources.
In Thursday’s announcement, the administration also noted that it plans to use nature-based solutions to reduce emissions from forests and agriculture. This could include creating more green space in cities or protecting and restoring forests.
Ultimately, reaching Biden’s new target will depend on buy-in from Congress and state and local governments to enact policy that supports clean energy sources and supportive infrastructure, among other things.