First Things to Fix

Early actions the Biden administration can take to restore critical environmental protections

In recent years, America’s environment has been at risk. Air pollution has been on the rise. Many of our bodies of water are at risk of pollution from chemical and oil storage facilities, fertilizers, stormwater runoff, sewage systems, and more. As greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, so have the impacts of global warming, from increased wildfires and hurricanes to heat-related illness.

And while the U.S. remains a sharply divided country, Americans broadly agree: the government should be doing more to protect the environment.

In the Biden administration’s early days, it is critical that we take swift action to clean up our environment and address the climate crisis. There are several important environmental policies that can be set in motion on day one that will protect our natural landscapes and give Americans cleaner air, cleaner water and a more livable climate. Many of these are policies that Americans already worked hard to put in place, but which, over the past four years, the Trump administration rolled back or weakened. At a minimum, the Biden administration should restore these commonsense solutions to protect our land, air, water and climate.

Five immediate actions to protect the environment

On day one, the Biden administration should take five critical actions to implement or set in motion policies to protect the environment in five areas: climate, clean water, clean air, conservation and clean energy.

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Rejoin the Paris Agreement

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Earth recently had its warmest September on record, and 2020 is on its way to becoming the hottest year yet. This year has seen record breaking wildfires across the American west, devastating storms and flooding in the Midwest and yet another extremely active hurricane season.

The science is clear: in order to preserve a livable climate we need to limit global warming this century to below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. To achieve this, we have to start ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions immediately. On our current path, we face warming of at least 3 degrees Celsius and to get on the right path we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7.6 percent every year. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped in 2019, but not by nearly enough, and only after a sharp increase in 2018.

The Paris Agreement is a landmark accord, signed by nearly every nation in 2015 to combat climate change. It sets out a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. It also aims to strengthen countries' ability to deal with the impacts of climate change and support them in their efforts. The United States played a critical role in forming the agreement, and was an original signatory. But on November 4, 2020, the United States became the only country to formally withdraw from the agreement, fulfilling a campaign promise President Trump made four years earlier.

By rejoining the Paris Agreement on day one, the Biden administration can reestablish the United States as a global leader in the fight against climate change and recommit to achieving the emissions reductions necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. All by taking action that is very popular among the American public. Seven out of 10 Americans supported remaining in the agreement, according to a national poll conducted by Climate Nexus in 2020. In 2020, according to a Pew Research Center poll, climate remained important to the American voter.

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Repeal the Dirty Water Rule

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Pollution threatens clean water across the United States. Nearly fifty years after passage of the Clean Water Act, far too many of America’s waterways face pollution from oil and gas operations, factory farms, toxic chemicals like PFAS, stormwater runoff, sewage overflows, and more. Part of the problem is failure to enforce the Clean Water Act itself: on 8,100 occasions, major industrial facilities dumped more pollution into our waterways than their permits allowed over just 21 months. In other cases, the legal standards on the books are now too weak to protect our rivers, lakes, and streams from polluting operations — including power plants, slaughterhouses, coal ash dumps, and more.

The EPA's Dirty Water Rule left more than half our nation's wetlands and thousands of streams that help provide drinking water without Clean Water Act protections.28 Repealing the Dirty Water Rule can be done administratively and set in motion on day one by the EPA, though a permanent restoration of Clean Water Act protections will likely require Congress to amend the Clean Water Act itself.

Protecting clean water is incredibly popular among the American public. Pollution of drinking water and the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs consistently poll as the top environmental concerns for Americans in a series of Gallup polls. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, 92 percent of sportsmen nationwide want the federal government to strengthen or maintain current standards for the Clean Water Act.

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Strengthen fuel economy and emissions standards

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Strengthen federal fuel economy and emissions standards for vehicles and reaffirm California’s authority to set stronger vehicle emissions standardsclose

After seven years of decline, air pollution started rising in 2016. By 2018, 108 million Americans lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality. That is equal to more than three months of the year in which ground-level ozone (the main ingredient in smog) and/or particulate pollution was above the level that the EPA has determined presents “little to no risk.” As a result, millions of Americans suffer from adverse health impacts linked to air pollution, and tens of thousands have their lives cut short.

COVID-19 has been a stark reminder of the consequences of air pollution. The air pollution that results from our heavy reliance on fossil fuels made COVID-19 outcomes worse and has likely contributed to the high death rate in the U.S.

Vehicle tailpipes are a major source of health harming air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Mobile sources may have disproportionately larger impacts on health compared to other sources, because mobile sources are generally in closer proximity to people. A 2019 study estimated that transportation emissions were associated with more than a quarter of U.S. deaths caused by fine particulate matter created by human activity. Additionally, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

To promote clean air, the Biden administration should immediately start to undo the Trump administration’s unlawful attempt to block California from exercising its authority to set tailpipe emissions standards stronger than the federal standards and the ability of other states to adopt California’s stronger emissions standards. The Biden administration should also reverse the Trump administration’s unlawful attempt to set lower federal fuel economy and emissions standards for vehicles. The standards in place before the Trump administration’s rollback would have resulted in 1,055 million to 1,317 million metric tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions by 2026.

Strict emissions control standards on vehicles are popular among the American public. A 2018 American Lung Association poll found that nearly 7 in 10 voters supported the stronger Obamaera fuel efficiency standards.

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Withdraw from Trump's offshore drilling plan

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America’s natural places provide incredible benefits beyond the witnessing of awe-inspiring beauty. Forests improve air quality and serve as valuable carbon sinks, mitigating over 11 percent of the U.S.’s total carbon emissions in 2017. Wetlands can help prevent flooding and remove excessive nutrients from water before it ever enters a treatment plant. In one example, the EPA found that one wetland in South Carolina removed the same amount of pollutants from the watershed naturally as would a $5 million treatment plant.

Yet America’s natural areas are at risk. Coastal zones have lost thousands of acres of critical natural areas. From 2007 through 2017, oil production on public lands increased by 60 percent. Recent federal actions have eroded protections for natural lands and ocean waters.

From the grizzly on the ridgeline to the bee in the meadow, from the wolf in the forest to the butterfly in our backyard, America’s wildlife is on the decline. Protecting wild spaces and natural areas is critical to the survival of threatened and endangered species, as well as other species in decline.

Despite the danger the action poses to our ocean environments and wildlife, in January 2018, the Trump administration proposed opening nearly all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, representing a drastic expansion of drilling expansion of future oil and gas leasing to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as off Florida’s Gulf Coast. According to a survey conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, more than half of voters opposed the plans by the Trump administration to expand offshore oil and gas drilling.

The plan is currently on hold after a federal judge in Alaska ruled that President Trump exceeded his authority in pushing the plans forward. The Biden administration should withdraw the plans and take the option off the table completely.

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Restore smart energy efficiency policy

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In 2018, the nation wasted two thirds of the energy that it consumed. But the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimates that we can reduce our overall energy usage by 40 to 60 percent below current levels by midcentury, simply by using better technologies and eliminating waste across our economy. Reducing energy use creates big savings—for our planet, our climate and our health. More efficient energy use will clean up our air and help combat climate change. As an added bonus, reducing energy consumption results in lower energy bills.

We can address the largest environmental challenges of our time by shifting toward 100 percent renewable energy. And the fastest and easiest way to get to 100 percent is to reduce the amount of energy we need in the first place. It is critical that we cut our energy use and energy waste.

And yet, President Trump’s Department of Energy recently weakened a number of rules designed to increase efficiency standards in light bulbs and appliances and reduce wasted energy. The Biden administration should reverse course and restore strong energy efficiency standards for consumer appliances and industrial equipment.

According to Gallop, as of 2018, 63 percent of Americans preferred conservation versus more production when it comes to how we approach our energy problems.

The policies above can be implemented or set in motion through executive action on day one and will go a long way toward securing a greener, healthier America. The agenda for the rest of the first 100 days should then be focused on undoing the many harmful Trump administration rollbacks of impactful and popular environmental policies.

Additional environmental policies to prioritize in the early days of the administration

The following is a list of an additional fifteen environmental protections that the Biden administration should implement in the early days of the administration. Like the first five, these important protections will have a significant impact on conserving our natural spaces, cleaning up our air and water and combating the climate crisis. They are also policies that will enjoy broad bipartisan support among the American public.

  1. Restore the Roadless Rule for Alaska’s Tongass Forest
  2. Update regulations to control methane emissions
  3. Support ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocols to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons
  4. Support ratification of the Basel Amendment to regulate international waste trade
  5. Reinstate the transportation greenhouse gas emissions reduction performance standard
  6. Reverse the Toxic Water Rule
  7. Strengthen National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for Ozone and Particulate Matter
  8. Cancel the EPA’s plan to allow unlined coal ash ponds to continue operating
  9. Strengthen NEPA Regulations
  10. Protect Endangered Species
  11. Get the lead out of drinking water
  12. Stop oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
  13. Strengthen the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards
  14. Reduce Pollution from Industrial Flares
  15. Restore protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument
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FIRST THINGS TO FIX

Tell President-elect Biden to restore environmental protections on day one