Sweeping Executive Orders From Biden Take Aggressive Climate Action

Ordering a halt to new oil and gas leases on public lands, President Biden elevated climate change to a national-security priority Wednesday as part of what he is billing a “whole-of-government” approach. 

President Joe Biden signs an executive order on climate change, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden took an aggressive stab at tackling climate change and preserving federal lands in a suite of executive actions signed Wednesday, moving quickly to reverse environmental and energy policies from the last administration.

“In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can’t wait any longer,” Biden said at an afternoon press conference before he signed the orders. “We see it with our own eyes. We feel it. We know it in our bones. And it’s time to act.”

Taking a “whole-of-government” approach, as Biden called it, the orders include pausing new oil and gas leases on federal lands, broad new foreign policy goals, conserving at least 30% of federal lands and water by 2030, doubling offshore wind production by 2030, creating clean energy jobs, and elevating the role of science and environmental justice in decision making.

Biden called climate change an “existential threat” and portrayed his actions as an opportunity for job creation. He claimed that the auto industry alone will see 1 million new jobs when the government purchases American-made zero-emission vehicles.  

“Today is climate day at the White House which means that today is jobs day at the White House,” Biden said, calling his orders, “concrete, actionable solutions.” 

Across the Hill, Biden’s pick for energy secretary made a similar pitch as Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy warned that people losing fossil fuel industry jobs need more than promises to bank on.

The oil and gas industry in particular has been fiercely critical of Biden’s signing a moratorium Wednesday that halts new fossil fuel leasing on federal land and water while the administration reviews the programs. 

“Many of the climate Executive Orders issued today by the Biden Administration are more symbolic and do not promote actual solutions to the global issue of climate change,” Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration and Production Council, a trade association that represents oil and gas producers, said in a statement. “Penalizing the oil and gas industry kills good-paying American jobs, hurts our already struggling economy, makes our country more reliant on foreign energy sources, and impacts those who rely on affordable and reliable energy.”

But environmentalists have praised the measure, calling it a “critical step” in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Randi Spivak, the public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that one-quarter of the country’s carbon output comes from fossil fuel leasing on public lands. 

“We don’t have any more room to open up new leases to oil, gas or coal. If all the potential emissions from operating fields worldwide are allowed to continue to burn, they will exhaust our carbon budget,” Spivak said. “Any constraints on the supply — any reduction — is a critical step to take. We already have under lease more than we can afford to burn.”

Another of Biden’s measures Wednesday establishes that climate considerations are an important element of U.S. foreign policy and national security. In a bid to make the United States a world climate leader, this order announced that the United States will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit on Earth Day (April 22, 2021) and reconvene the Major Economies Forum. 

This move comes with a number of new roles and commissions: special presidential envoy for climate, who will have a seat on the National Security Council; the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy; and the National Climate Task Force, which essentially weaves climate change priorities into 21 federal agencies and departments. 

“What really distinguishes these orders is the ‘whole-government approach,’ and really recognizing that dealing with climate change involves clean energy and a clean energy economy transition rather than narrow, pollutant-specific policies,” said Alice Kaswan, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. “It really will have cross cutting impacts across jobs and environmental justice.” 

One of the executive orders issued Wednesday directs federal agencies to deliver 40% of its sustainability investments to disadvantaged communities — who often experience the brunt of the worst effects of climate change.

It also establishes a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, in addition to new or strengthened environmental justice offices at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Justice Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  

“Linking efforts on climate change with social justice is tremendously important to the clean energy transition,” Kaswan said. “They’re not in separate silos.”  

The sweeping environmental actions build on Biden’s first day in office when he canceled the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement — a stark contrast to rushed opening of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the early days of the Trump administration. 

“Our plans are ambitious but we are America,” Biden said. “We can do this, we must do this, and we will do this.”

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