Ten actions President Biden should take immediately to protect the environment

Come the inauguration of the 118th Congress in January, we expect less congressional support for the Biden administration’s priorities. Protecting the environment remains as pressing as ever, so President Biden should take the following 10 actions immediately to protect our air, water, climate, wildlife and wild places.

Clean air

Staff | TPIN
Chesapeake Bay Beach

In his first two years in office, President Joe Biden spearheaded major environmental progress by working with Congress on legislation to fund his administration’s objectives. Landmark bills including the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law will pay to get the lead out of Americans’ drinking water, replace dirty diesel school buses with clean electric ones and invest in climate mitigation policies and technology predicted to reduce U.S. emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. 

Come the inauguration of the 118th Congress in January, we expect less congressional support for the Biden administration’s priorities, even though protecting the environment remains as pressing as ever. We’re a long way from stabilizing our climate. Air pollution still causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year and is linked to health problems ranging from asthma to dementia. Our wetlands, streams and forests are still threatened by logging and development, yet many Trump-era rollbacks of prior environmental protection policies remain on the books.

Against that backdrop, President Biden should take the following 10 actions immediately to protect our air, water, climate, wildlife and wild places. Not only do these measures enjoy strong support from Americans, but also many have already undergone scientific review and lengthy periods for public input (comment periods). Now, it’s time for the president to act.

Ten immediate actions President Biden should take to protect the environment

1. Make appliances more efficient

The Biden administration should finalize appliance efficiency standards, an important tool we can use to save energy, as quickly as possible. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed new efficiency standards for clothes dryers, home furnaces, air conditioners, pool pump motors and heaters, commercial water heaters and distribution transformers. The impacts can be huge:  proposed furnace standards would cut 373 million metric tons of carbon emissions and prevent 833 thousand tons of harmful nitrogen oxide emissions from getting into our air over 30 years of sales.

The cleanest energy is the energy we don’t use in the first place, but in 2018, Americans wasted two-thirds of the energy we consumed. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimates that we can reduce our overall energy usage by 40% to 60% by midcentury, simply by using better technologies and eliminating waste. The climate package enacted in this summer’s Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits and rebates to help people switch to energy-efficient (often electric) appliances and the bipartisan infrastructure law from 2021 provides significant funding for weatherization. More efficient energy use will mean less global-warming air pollution, which will help combat climate change and improve public health. As an added bonus, reducing energy consumption results in lower utility bills.

2. Restore the Roadless Rule for Alaska’s Tongass Forest

President Biden has pledged to restore protections to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and the Forest Service has temporarily suspended all road building activities in the forest during the rulemaking process, but has yet to finalize the rule.

The Tongass is the world’s largest remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest and contains the largest tracts of old-growth forests left in the United States. It is home to myriad majestic species, including grizzly bears, wolves and bald eagles. The forest is also one of our best natural solutions to global warming. The trees and other vegetation in the Tongass absorb 44% of the total carbon stored by all the forests under the U.S. Forest Service. In October 2020, the Trump administration finalized its proposal to allow logging and road building in the Tongass, exempting it from the protections of the “Roadless Rule.” The period for the public to comment on the Forest Service’s proposal to restore protections ended on January 24, 2022. It’s past time for President Biden to fully restore protections to the Tongass National Forest.

3. Stop methane leaks

President Biden should move expeditiously to finalize a strong rule to control methane emissions.

Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas that traps 85 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide does over 20 years. Oil and gas operations leak large amounts of methane into the air, accelerating global warming and threatening public health. 

Despite that threat, in 2020, the Trump administration implemented the Methane Rescission Rule, which eliminated federal oversight of methane waste from hundreds of thousands of oil and gas facilities. However, after a joint resolution of Congress in 2021, President Biden’s signature invalidated that misguided decision and reinstated two important Obama-era rules regulating methane emissions. That same year, the EPA proposed an ambitious rule to more stringently regulate methane leaks. The comment period for the EPA’s new methane emissions rule ended on January 31, 2022, more than nine months ago. 

4. Propose strong standards on soot pollution

The EPA should adopt the strongest possible safeguards to reduce soot (particulate matter)  pollution from power plants. Doing so would lead to cleaner air and healthier communities and help President Biden uphold his pledge to cut climate pollution in the United States in half by 2030. 

In August, the EPA proposed stricter soot standards to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Soot from power plants can cause lung disease, bronchitis and cancer. Strengthening soot standards could prevent nearly 20,000 premature deaths a year, but in 2020, the Trump administration opted to ignore scientific experts and retain old, weak pollution limits. 

Every day without tighter regulation, unhealthy soot pollution adversely affects millions of Americans. President Biden must ensure the EPA’s proposal is released and goes into effect as soon as possible, so that we can save lives.

5. Support National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations

President Biden should withdraw his support for any congressional proposals to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess environmental impacts before allowing potentially harmful projects. 

The president restored stronger NEPA protections this spring but now has called for weakening this bedrock environmental law to speed up the construction of gas pipelines, mines, transmission lines and other energy projects. When it comes to oil and gas drilling on public lands, offshore oil rigs or toxic mining in places that should be pristine such as the beloved Boundary Waters in Minnesota, we need a robust NEPA to defend our environment.

6. Let trees grow

President Biden should protect old-growth and mature trees and forests on federal public lands from logging as a cornerstone of U.S. climate policy.

The trees that make up our forests are some of the oldest living things on Earth, many of them older than America itself. These forests provide crucial habitat for thousands of species. Forests—particularly older forests—also store vast amounts of carbon. Trees continue absorbing carbon as they age, which makes them crucial allies in our race against climate change if we just let them grow. But across the United States, old growth and mature trees and forests are still being logged.

On Earth Day, President Biden issued an executive order celebrating our forests and calling for an inventory of old growth and mature trees, so that policies may be developed to protect them. In August, environmental groups, including Environment America, delivered more than 122,000 public comments urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to protect mature and old-growth forests and trees on federal public lands from logging.

7. Make wildlife refuges safe for bees

President Biden should immediately end the use in national wildlife refuges of the pesticides known as neonicotinoids (or neonics) that have been linked to a steep decline in bee populations. By definition, wildlife refuges should be safe havens for wild creatures — including bees.

Our dwindling bee populations need an escape from neonics, which poison baby bees’ brains, interrupt sleep patterns and interfere with reproduction. Yet in 2018, the Trump-era U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted an Obama-era ban on these pesticides, allowing spraying in some wildlife refuges where farming is allowed.

8. Strengthen the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

The EPA should ensure that the United States again boasts robust national Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) to limit emissions of mercury and other toxics from power plants that use fossil fuels. Coal-fired power plants commonly emit mercury, a powerful neurotoxin that can impair children’s brain development. 

In April 2020, the EPA undercut MATS, but the agency has since taken steps to restore the standards, which could prevent 11,000 premature deaths each year stemming from toxic emissions. MATS is a proven success. In 2017, air toxics emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants were 96 percent lower than before the regulations took effect.

9. Get the lead out of our drinking water

President Biden should propose strengthening the Lead and Copper Rule, including requiring water utilities to fully replace all lead service lines within 10 years.

Lead is highly toxic and especially dangerous to children. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) contains $15 billion for lead pipe replacement–a significant amount but not enough to replace all lead service lines. President Biden’s Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan calls for replacing all lead pipes within 10 years and 15 U.S. senators recently urged the EPA to update the Lead and Copper Rule to achieve this goal.

10. Protect special places in Texas and Nevada

President Biden should designate Texas’ Castner Range and Nevada’s Avi Kwa Ame as national monuments. We need nature. Whether it’s the thrill of climbing higher than ever before or the wind through the trees as we walk through the woods, people get something out of the great outdoors that we don’t get from our smart phones or from walking down city streets. Unfortunately, many of these majestic public lands are threatened by mining, drilling and logging. “National monument” classifications can help protect these special places.

Castner Range, just outside El Paso, is threatened by encroaching development that could supplant its unique flora, fauna and rock formations. Every spring, bright yellow poppies bloom, blanketing the mountains in vivid color. Alongside the poppies, sand prickly pear cacti explode into similarly bright colors. Light brown horned lizards and burrowing owls share this remarkable ecosystem as well. 

The proposed Avi Kwa Ame (Ah-VEE kwa-meh) National Monument would cover more than 450,000 acres of sacred land about 80 miles south of Las Vegas. Avi Kwa Ame (the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain), in the Mojave Desert, hosts diverse species including desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep and Gila monsters. It’s also home to the world’s largest Joshua tree forest, which includes some 900-year-old trees.

President Biden recently created Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument around a former Army base in Colorado’s mountains. The area is renowned today for hiking trails, snow sports, elk and lynx. The president previously restored protections that had been rescinded or threatened by the Trump administration to Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monuments.

Maridav | Shutterstock.com

Lisa Frank

Executive Director, Washington Legislative Office, Environment America; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network

Lisa directs strategy and staff for Environment America's federal campaigns. She also oversees The Public Interest Network's Washington, D.C., office and operations. She has won millions of dollars in investments in walking, biking and transit, and has helped develop strategic campaigns to protect America's oceans, forests and public lands from drilling, logging and road-building. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant in Washington, D.C., where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.

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