The end of 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the EPA, a momentous milestone for the agency and a reminder of the crucial role it serves in keeping our water cleaner, air safer, and climate healthier.
But as we’ve seen over the last four years, that role can only be effectively served if the mechanisms the EPA relies on aren’t gutted by polluting industries.
We’ve faced immeasurable challenges in the fight to protect our waterways, lands, air and climate since 2017. Fortunately, come Jan. 20, we have an opportunity to chart a new path, which first requires President-elect Joe Biden to claw back to where we started.
While undoing years of systemic damage will not happen overnight, what the last four years have taught us is that the federal government and its chief executive wield significant and exceptional power in shaping how we respond to the climate crisis.
Within the first 100 days of the new administration, Biden must use that power to restore norms, laws and regulations that help keep our environment healthy.
We at Waterkeeper Alliance propose beginning with a five-point action plan, at the very minimum, to cling to any hope that our environmental failings are not irreparable.
Biden must fulfill his campaign pledge to ban new fossil fuel leasing on publicly owned federal lands by issuing a new executive order directing all relevant agencies to pursue such a ban. Fossil fuels extracted from federal lands are responsible for about one quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s estimated that such a federal ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year.
The new administration must fully recognize and address the human and ecological toll of environmental racism. Our nation’s environmental justice policy has never been nearly robust enough to make a meaningful difference in the lives and health of underserved people and communities. Upon taking office, it’s imperative that Biden either revise and strengthen the 1994 executive order that addresses environmental justice in minority and low-income populations or issue a new executive order that immediately prioritizes reversing the grave systemic damage done to environmental justice policy and enforcement over the past four years.
Clean Water Act
Biden must issue an executive order to restore the Clean Water Act to its full regulatory force. The landmark legislation has been under attack by an administration intent on undermining the very principles that make it effective. Protecting drinkable, fishable and swimmable water starts with repairing the Clean Water Act’s broken definition of “waters of the United States” and restoring state and tribal authority, and public participation rights, under the law.
An executive order directing the Council on Environmental Quality to promptly repeal the Trump administration’s National Environmental Policy Act rollback rule and replace it with new regulations that rebuild NEPA would be inextricably tied to two key Biden priorities — climate change and environmental justice.
Other executive orders
Shifting course on climate also requires rescinding harmful and damaging executive orders from the last four years. These include executive orders that arbitrarily direct all federal agencies to repeal two existing regulations for each new regulation issued; direct agencies to review, rescind and/or revise rules that impede U.S. energy production; and undermine the sanctity and safety of our national monuments and marine sanctuaries.
With the climate crisis accelerating at a frenetic pace, it is paramount the incoming Biden administration act quickly in its first 100 days. It must examine comprehensive shifts in the way our government understands and approaches climate policy. But to even get to a place where we can begin to have those conversations, we need to get back to stable footing.
For 50 years, the EPA has proved its resilience as the primary force safeguarding human health and our environment. Now, with the immediate support of a new administration, the agency can be rebuilt and empowered to make the next half-century even more transformational than the first.
Marc Yaggi is the executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide network of more than 350 environmental advocacy groups that protect over 2.75 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents.