How to Start Saving the Planet in 100 Days: the Joe Biden Edition

Here’s what we want to see from our new president on the environmental front between now and May.

The stacks from the Gavin coal-burning power plant dwarfing a small nearby home in Cheshire, Ohio

Credit: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

During one of his “fireside chats” broadcast over the radio in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to quell public fears about the tail-spinning U.S. economy by noting how much his administration had accomplished during his first 100 days in office. Ever since that Depression-era chat, the actions (or inactions) of an administration’s first three or so months have been analyzed to assess a new president’s energy, dedication, and prioritization.

President Joe Biden began his first 100 days last Wednesday—starting the clock on what could become the most challenging 100-day benchmark in presidential history. This is not only because Biden must help the country deal with the trauma caused by the seditious siege of the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago. In the coming few months, Biden must also turn the tide on a mismanaged pandemic that has so far killed more than 400,000 people across the United States, while he simultaneously tends to the significant damage that his predecessor inflicted on the country’s rule of law, racial relations, international reputation, economy, and environment.

President Biden has wasted no time, taking swift action on several day one priorities. Just hours after being sworn in, he signed more than a dozen executive orders that reversed some of the Trump administration’s most egregious rollbacks. By midnight, the United States had re-entered the Paris climate agreement, rejoined the World Health Organization, rescinded the permit allowing for completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, and placed a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He’s certainly off to a good start, but here’s what President Biden should take on during his next 99 days or so.

Restore NEPA, the “Magna Carta” of Environmental Laws

The 1970 passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) more or less invented the concept of government transparency and public involvement in environmental and public health matters. Under NEPA, the federal government must study and assess the environmental impacts of any large projects it undertakes—like pipelines, dams, and highways—and give local communities a chance to have their say. President Biden’s nomination of the renowned environmental lawyer Brenda Mallory to head the agency responsible for overseeing NEPA is a good sign that he intends to preserve, and hopefully bolster, this groundbreaking law that Donald Trump did his best to water down. NEPA is an essential legal tool in the fight for environmental justice, and Biden should waste no time in reviving its original purpose of protecting people by preventing environmental destruction.

Ensure Safe, Affordable, and Lead-free Drinking Water

An executive order imposing an immediate nationwide moratorium on water shutoffs would ensure that people don’t lose their access to water during a pandemic. Access to water is a human right, but it’s not enough for water to be there when the faucet is turned on: It must also be safe. For millions of people across the country—and too often Black Americans, Latinos, and low-income communities—safe water has not been available. President Biden should provide funding for lead pipe removal as well as water assistance for these communities. And his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule—a historically weak rule that’s supposed to keep lead out of water supplies, which Trump’s EPA further weakened, allowing millions of lead service lines to remain in use and posing health threats to generations of children. Biden must also have the EPA set and enforce strict new standards to remove other hazardous chemicals such as perchlorate and PFAS from the water we need for our very survival.

Representative Deb Haaland, Biden’s pick to lead the Interior Department, at a press conference to present a "clean, just economic recovery plan"
Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

Stop Drilling Public Land!

“If I had my way, it’d be great to stop all gas and oil leasing on federal and public lands because those lands belong to all of us; they don’t just belong to one sector,” said Deb Haaland last fall, a few months before Biden chose her for his Interior Department secretary, the first-ever nomination of a Native American to a Cabinet-level position. If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland could help do just that by curtailing such activity across the half billion acres that her department oversees. The action would be key to Biden’s climate plan, since such development accounts for nearly a quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

In fact, on the day following his inauguration, Biden suspended new oil and gas leases and drilling permits within federal lands and waters for 60 days. The order also applies to coal mining approvals. Up next, the president should direct his agencies to undertake a thorough review of current leasing practices with an eye toward limiting any future fossil fuel activity to the maximum extent possible under current law. Instead, these lands and waters should be managed as powerful assets in the fight against climate change.

...That Goes for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge too!

The nation’s largest wildlife refuge stretches for more than 19 million acres along Alaska’s northern coast. For thousands of years, it has been the sacred land of the Indigenous Gwich’in people and vital to other residents of the Arctic who depend on its lands, waters, and caribou herds for their subsistence. Yet Trump—in league with the oil and gas industry—enthusiastically opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel leasing. When his Interior Department tried to auction off drilling rights (on the same day as the U.S. Capitol siege), however, it was largely a bust. But that doesn’t mean the refuge is safe. In addition to his Day One executive order that halts leasing in the Arctic Refuge, President Biden must work quickly to cancel the few leases that were sold and prioritize getting the new Congress to make sure no administration can ever try to open up the Arctic Refuge to development again.

And Stop New Drilling in the Sea!

Just before Thanksgiving, the Trump administration sold leases to more than half a million offshore acres to oil and gas developers as a parting gift to the industry. Biden has made no secret of his wish to ban any new fossil fuel leasing in federal lands or waters—and he should convert that wish into action within his first 100 days. Offshore drilling, along with the destructive seismic testing that comes with it, is dangerous, threatening marine life, the climate, and the economies and health of coastal communities. And it certainly doesn’t fit with Biden’s vision for a clean energy economy.

Expand Investments in Clean Transportation

We’ve already seen several promising signs that President Biden understands the important role that clean transportation, including public transit and electric vehicles (EVs), plays in curbing pollution and combating the climate crisis. For starters, he nominated former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, a vocal champion of EVs, to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has promised to make climate a priority, to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation.

President Biden also plans to add 500,000 accessible electric vehicle charging outlets to the nation’s driving infrastructure and fully restore—and even expand—the $7,500 tax credit for EV buyers that Donald Trump tried to eliminate. Taking quick action on infrastructure improvements and tax credits should encourage carmakers to grow domestic manufacturing of EVs, creating much-needed jobs, and lay the foundation for a future in which U.S. electric cars outsell their gas-powered counterparts by 2040. Biden should also follow through on his promise to provide high-quality public transportation to every U.S. city with more than 100,000 people; he’s already proposed $20 billion in emergency support for transit agencies in his American Rescue Plan. Investing in quality, low-carbon public transit is key to reducing emissions and creating healthier, connected neighborhoods.

Undo Trump’s Attacks on Wildlife Protections

Since its passage in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has enjoyed massive public support across ideological lines. Extinction, as it turns out, isn’t a crowd-pleaser. Yet in 2019 and 2020, the Trump administration issued multiple rules to make it easier to leave species and their habitat unprotected, and even allowed economic factors to muddy decisions about which species to protect rather than basing these decisions purely on science, as the ESA requires. After correcting Trump’s rollbacks with swift reversals, Biden can further illustrate a commitment to addressing the biodiversity crisis by relisting the gray wolf. Trump delisted this iconic and ecologically important species last fall, despite an abundance of evidence that wolf populations still very much need protecting.

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