What Does a Biden Presidency Mean for the Outdoors?

After four years of Trump, U.S. environmental policymakers are about to get new marching orders. Are we in for a seismic shift, or just a course correction?

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cedar mesa
Cedar Mesa, Bears EarsBureau of Land Management

Since his inauguration on January 20, 2017, President Donald Trump has rolled back 84 environmental rules and regulations ranging from air pollution to drilling, and he’s in the process of reversing 20 others. There have been some scattered bright spots for outdoor recreation, most notably the bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. On balance, however, the Trump administration has taken a dim view of land conservation, promoting drilling and mining near national parks and shrinking a handful of national monuments, most infamously Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. But as President Trump enacted most of those changes through executive order, President-elect Biden is now in a position to undo them with the stroke of a pen.

Biden has a track record of pushing forward policies aimed at conserving the environment and natural resources. The League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed him for president in this year’s election, ranks his lifetime voting record in the Senate at 83 percent —generally positive, but trailing behind Bernie Sanders (91 percent) or Green New Deal architect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (97 percent). Here’s what hikers and outdoors lovers can expect from the 46th president.

The return of environmental protections

As Obama’s former vice president, it’s a safe bet that Biden will restore his old running mate’s environmental rules upon taking office. Rollbacks of rules enforcing laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were a signature feature of Trump’s presidency, and as most of those changes were made via executive order or by appointed officials inside the Department of the Interior, Biden could undo them unilaterally.

A major goal of Biden’s environmental agenda will be to stop drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In August, Trump’s Interior Department issued a final plan for the land’s exploration and development, but it’ll be tough for Biden to fully overturn that project due to a 2017 law requiring leasing in the ANWR. At a minimum, however, he can delay or restrict the area’s development through a series of legal challenges and interpretations.

He’s also explicitly promised to end the Keystone XL pipeline project, which Obama delayed and Trump pushed through via presidential permit. And while Biden hasn’t taken a stance on the oft-maligned Dakota Access pipeline, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris signed an amicus brief favoring legislation that supports shutting it down.

More protected lands

Currently, about 14 percent of the United States’ land and waters are protected. One of Biden’s core plans would change that in a big way: The president-elect says he plans to sign an executive order with the aim of placing 30 percent of American lands and waters under protected status within the next 10 years.

Dubbed “30 by 2030,” the plan takes a long-term approach to protecting biodiversity and wildlife habitats. The plan would also contribute to the growth of natural carbon sinks—reservoirs that accumulate carbon and lower its concentration in the atmosphere— which the Biden administration promotes as an organic solution to climate change, and promote the creation of new parks and monuments. Reality check: Because it’s a 10-year plan, even a two-term Biden presidency wouldn’t be long enough to fully see it through.

Less oil and gas drilling on public land

Trump made boosting drilling and mineral extraction a centerpiece of his public lands policy, beginning when he signed an early executive order reducing barriers for land-based development for oil, gas, and coal companies. He also deregulated offshore drilling and supported fracking with few to no restrictions.

In contrast, Biden campaigned on halting new permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands via executive order and has promised an end to new offshore drilling, though he has stated that he wouldn’t end fracking. The former senator also favors a ban on subsidies for nonrenewable energy companies. He’s further expressed support for the Roadless Rule, enacted under Bill Clinton, which grants natural spaces protection from exploitation. Trump rolled back the rule’s protections in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

With the Senate likely to remain under Republican control, however, this seismic shift away from conservative policy could face stiff resistance. While there’s a certain amount a Biden administration could do via the president’s powers, legislative moves like ending fossil fuel subsidies are unlikely to pass in his first term unless his party can capture the Senate—which is still possible, though not probable.

Restored national monuments

One of President Trump’s ugliest battles with the outdoor industry was over his administration’s decision to drastically shrink two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, in 2017. While state officials welcomed the move, it put the administration at odds with everyone from industry giants like Patagonia to tribal governments around the region, five of which banded together to sue over the decision. (The lawsuit, which argues that Trump exceeded his authority when he shrunk the monuments, is still ongoing).

Biden has pledged to restore both monuments, but has been mum about the exact steps he plans to take. As president, he would have the power to restore both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to their original boundaries via executive order on day one; however, that would potentially leave them vulnerable to a future Republican administration that would want to shrink them again. Transforming them into national parks would be a more permanent solution, but it would also require the cooperation of the Senate; if he goes that route, expect to see park boundaries shrink as Republicans and Democrats come to a compromise.

A renewed focus on environmental justice (or at least a return to the status quo)

The Trump administration dismantled the National Environmental Protection Act, a law that gave communities of color a greater say in the authorization of polluting projects in their neighborhoods. In contrast, Biden has said in the past that he favors strengthening the NEPA. He’s also set a goal of allocating 40 percent of new clean energy investments towards disadvantaged communities and communities of color.

Biden’s climate change plan is notably strong, drawing support from climate hawks like Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Again, like Trump, Biden is likely to focus on actions he can take via executive order: One of the easiest—and probably first—moves he’s likely to make is to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, from which Trump withdrew in June 2017. Then there’s construction of “the wall,” which has heavily impacted protected lands along the border: Biden has flatly said that “there will not be another foot” constructed during his administration.

Assuming he can get legislative support, Biden’s climate plan proposes spending $2 trillion over four years to push the country towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as well as hosting a global climate summit where he would push other countries to beef up their targets.

He also favors greater investment into clean energy sources and climate-conscious advances for the auto and transportation industries, stating that he plans to issue an executive order that would use the Federal government procurement system to drive production of zero-emission vehicles. His planned decree on fuel economy standards pushes to shift 100 percent of light- and medium-duty vehicle sales to electric. Other Trump rollbacks that shifted power from communities to industry—like the administration’s weakening of the New Source Review program, which subjected proposed factories and power plants to stringent pollution analysis—are likely to fall.

So while Biden might struggle to pass legislation through the Republican Senate, there’s plenty that he can do unilaterally using his executive power. And if he follows through with his campaign promises, then U.S. environmental norms could see a shift back towards Obama-era standards and beyond.

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