“Fear never builds the future, but hope does.” Joe Biden spoke these words as the Democratic nominee in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last year. His words may have been meant to inspire Americans at a time when divisions in the country had been made quite visible. Among many goals, the Biden administration has claimed that it will seek to bring economic relief while combating a deadly pandemic and rebuild the country’s trust in science.
Trust in science matters not only for combating the spread of COVID-19, but also for rebuilding environmental protections and confronting climate change. What impact did the Trump administration have on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and what has Biden stated he intends to do with the EPA during his time in office? This article explores these questions as the work of the new administration commences.
What impact did the Trump administration have on the EPA?
When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he openly spoke of his intent to defund and quash the EPA’s activities. During both terms of the Obama administration, 75% of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) was composed of academic scientists. Trump decreased that number to less than 50%, reasoning that there was a conflict of interest among academic scientists who were receiving EPA grants. The same reasoning was not applied to the new scientists the Trump administration brought on board to the SAB if they had ties to the coal or oil industries. Ultimately, the administration’s persistent diminishment of agency resources led to roughly 1,600 out of 15,000 employed workers leaving the EPA. Many of these workers cited distrust and ethical conflict over weakening pollution regulations as their rationale for stepping down.
Trump’s administration focused on reducing regulations for energy, agriculture, land use and resource extraction. After fulfilling his intent to remove the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement, the president targeted the EPA, rolling back regulations, reversing rules intended to reduce greenhouse gases, and dismissing global warming as legitimate.
Less than two weeks before its end, the Trump administration weakened an EPA assessment of PFBS, a “forever chemical” and a contaminant in drinking water that falls under the umbrella of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemical toxicity reference dose would be changed to a range value if approved, allowing leniency in water pollution and threatening health standards and exacerbating equity accessibility concerns.
The full list of EPA rules that were altered or were in progress of being altered by the Trump administration is lengthy. A synopsis of rule reversals is presented in the table below:
Trump’s administration passed two notable executive orders (EO) and a key agency rule regarding environmental regulation. In 2017, EO 13795 requested the Department of the Interior to reconsider limitations and regulations of offshore oil and gas development. Areas on the outer continental shelf were previously deemed off-limits to such development due to emergency response reach, impacts to proximate fisheries, and ecological effects, but rollback efforts would ultimately allow these areas to be opened for leasing and permitting (review of revisions is ongoing).
EO 13771, effective as of August of last year, rolled back regulations of greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds. This would allow methane emissions to increase by about 360,000 short tons. Finally, about three weeks ago, the “transparency rule” was finalized (86 FR 469), limiting the types of research scientists can use, mainly non-public data, when deciding on air-quality regulations. Since “non-public data” includes personal and medical information that must be kept private, the new rule effectively bans the use of public health data that is vital to determining the health impacts of air pollution.
What is Biden’s stated intent for the EPA, and how will it be carried out?
Joe Biden’s campaign focused on clean energy research and development, pollution free power, and low-carbon infrastructure like public transit, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient buildings. These goals call for the U.S. to generate entirely clean electricity by 2035 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. If President Biden intends to fulfill his promises on the environment both within and outside of the EPA, he must start by undoing the work of the Trump administration.
That work began last week when Biden signed EO 13990 shortly after taking office. In addition to revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, the order empowers the EPA to review Trump’s many environmental rollbacks. Biden is expected to return to Obama-era actions on the environment by either reversing Trump’s EOs or signing new ones, but this work will likely take time, in some cases most of Biden’s term in office.
A priority will be reestablishing trust between the White House and the scientific community and regaining the trust of communities that must abide by EPA regulations. One critical step will be to appoint a new administrator of the EPA, preferably a person with a strong scientific background, to ensure that the agency’s mission is revitalized and to raise morale in the scientific community. (Michael Regan, Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, is the first Black man nominated to head the agency.)
Biden will also need to nominate an assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development (ORD), which upholds EPA policy and scientific integrity. The ORD received complaints of scientist intimidation and suppression during Trump’s term. The EPA will need to investigate these allegations and restructure authority within its offices to ensure due process. A network of scientific advisory panels was disbanded over the last four years; they will need to be reinstated and be positioned to hear input from industry, state, and local actors, as well as Native nations.
Biden claims he will provide cities with populations of over 100,000 people with zero emission public transportation systems by 2030, even though he would no longer be president by then. Elected officials often set a “due date” beyond their term, which can lessen accountability. Since the aim is to enact measures that last beyond a president’s time in office, any pertinent legislation will need to incorporate policy instruments that have bipartisan support. To that end, Biden plans to sign an order ensuring that federal agencies buy American-made, clean vehicles. However, fulfilling this promise would require industry changes and a focus on addressing supply chain issues during a downward trend in American manufacturing. Incentives for people to buy electric vehicles have been proposed, along with new energy and fuel economy standards.
To address environmental justice (EJ) and inequities, the Biden administration’s climate plan claims it will provide BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) and low-income communities with 40% of clean energy spending, review current EJ programs, and create an EJ Climate Division within the Department of Justice.
All of these goals sound ideal. However, it is sometimes unclear what policy tools will be utilized to accomplish them, and how they will be financially supported through a four-year presidential term and beyond.
What happens next, and why does it matter?
Prior to the Trump administration, the U.S. had been committed to reducing its emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, but the country is not on track to meet this goal. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, will meet this November in Glasgow, Scotland, to place new commitments on each attending country. One of Biden’s first acts as President was to recommit the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, but an emissions-reduction target has not yet been set.
Our country has had its credibility greatly diminished when it comes to confronting climate change, and it will take consistent effort to improve not just the nation’s trust in science but also international trust in the U.S. The Biden White House will need to act quickly and with clear intent, centering advice from scientific experts to undo the previous administration’s impacts on the EPA. Time will tell what Biden can accomplish during his presidential term, but establishing the EPA as a respected, scientifically informed regulatory agency that addresses the people’s environmental concerns and tackles the climate crisis would be an important start.
Environmental actions have shifted from Congress to the executive branch of government, which can bring quicker results but can also mean that change is dependent on the whims of each president. As individuals, however, we can do more than simply hope in the power of the executive. Whoever is in the presidential office, their promises and actions are limited to four, maybe eight years. Besides having a healthy skepticism of promises made by elected officials and being vigilant about media bias, we can push for change that is urgently needed and recognize that government accountability depends on us and our collective efforts. While we wait to see the impacts of the new administration’s work, we can continue to keep ourselves informed, engaged, and active, with hope for a better environmental future.