The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Climate change isn't the only environmental crisis Biden wants to confront

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with Alexandra Ellerbeck

One of the biggest parts of Democratic nominee Joe Bidens green platform — and one thats gotten little attention so far — is his commitment to protect nearly a third of the nations land and water by 2030.

“We need to hit the ground running undoing the damage of the Trump administration, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a Biden surrogate and one of the leading advocates in Congress for a national “30 by 30” goal, said in an interview this month. But we cant stop there because that would be like putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound.”

Udall and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced a resolution laying out the objective last year. But the idea of protecting a certain percentage of the planet was planted by the biologist and writer E.O. Wilson in his 2016 book “Half Earth.”

Restricting human intrusion into nature is necessary, conservation proponents say, not only to curtail climate change, but also to stave off the loss of even more plants and animals to extinction as urban sprawl, agriculture, and oil drilling and other extractive activities continue to encroach on it.

Yet politicians here and abroad have made bold conservation promises in the past, only to fall short. And while the idea of protecting nature is broadly popular in the abstract, actually carrying out that goal can face stiff resistance from those who live and work near protected areas.

Biden is just one of the latest — and most prominent — politicians in the United States to back the burgeoning ‘30 by 30’ movement.

His platform calls on the United States to set aside 30 percent of its lands and water for conservation by the end of the decade.

“We should be taking the plan where we allow significant[ly] more land to be put in conservation, plant a deep root of plants, which absorb carbon from the air,” Biden said during a town hall event on ABC.

According to one estimate, around a football field’s worth of green area is lost to human development on average every 30 seconds in the Lower 48 states. That is playing a part in an unparalleled potential loss of 1 million species, which U.N. scientists say may have profound implications for human survival.

The loss of coral reefs worldwide to acidifying oceans, for example, could cause a collapse in populations of edible fish. Farmers increasing reliance on pesticides could kill off bees and other insects those same growers rely on to pollinate their crops. 

The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity — to which every U.N. member has signed onto except for the United States — had pledged to protect 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by this year. The United Nations says that goal has been “partially achieved."

Stateside, Biden has called out President Trump for opening the vast swath of caribou and polar bear habitat in the Alaskan Arctic to oil and gas drilling and eyeing more uranium mining in the West.

Even if Biden wins, the country has a ways to go to meet that goal in the next 10 years.

Only 12 percent of the nations lands and a little more than a quarter of its waters are sufficiently protected, according to research done by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Those protected areas include not just parks, but also wilderness areas, game refuges and other public lands with conservation easements. 

One powerful tool a Biden administration has to increase the acreage under protection is the Antiquities Act, which would allow the president to designate new national monuments with the stroke of a pen. But new monuments sometimes come with controversy — and are vulnerable to being undone by the next administration. 

After years of tension between federal agencies and locals in Utah, Trump scaled back the size of two national monuments established there by his Democratic predecessorsBears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — by more than 1.1 million acres and more than 800,000 acres, respectively.

Environmental and tribal groups challenged the reduction in federal court, where the case is still pending. More recently, the president similarly lifted limits on commercial fishing in an ocean sanctuary off the coast of New England.

Udall says Congress needs to work with Biden to pass legislation creating more permanent protections, too. “To get to 30 by 30, you need to use every tool in the tool box that all the governmental entities — the feds, the states and the locals — have," he said.

At the same time, proponents are ready to pressure a new Democratic administration to act quickly, should Biden win, while it still has political capital. Under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, “the efforts to conserve nature and conserve places really were second-term initiatives,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior CAP fellow.

“The hope here is that,” he added, “there can be more effort, more enthusiasm, more energy put into nature conservation early on.”

Ahead of the election, the plan is gaining momentum — at least among Democrats.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an executive order setting a “30 by 30” goal for the state. Hawaii has a similar goal of protecting waters near its shore.

And crucially, at the national level, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put down a marker by including the “30 by 30” goal in a House climate package released ahead of the election.

Recently, Republicans have been more open to conserving nature as the economies of Western states increasingly rely on hikers, campers and other tourists. The GOP-controlled Senate passed and Trump signed into law two major public lands packages over the past two years. 

“Now Democrats are challenging the GOP by going bigger and bolder with 30 by 30,” Udall said.

The New Mexico Democrat has chosen not to run for reelection this year after two terms in the Senate, but the 72-year-old politician has still filled much of his fall schedule with virtual events promoting the “30 by 30” goal.

Udall still may get another crack at working toward the conservation goal. Udall is talked about as a contender for interior secretary in Biden’s Cabinet — a position his father, Stewart Udall, held more than a half-century ago under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

“I announced two years ago that I wasn’t going to run for the Senate,” he said. “I told folks I’m not retiring. I’m interested in continuing public service.”

“Who wouldn’t be honored to serve in a President Biden Cabinet?” he added. “I'll just leave it there.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Power plays

Amy Coney Barrett dodged environmental questions in her written testimony.

In written responses submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Supreme Court nominee refused to weigh in with her views on climate change, echoing her response when asked about the topic during the confirmation hearings.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, asked Barrett why she was willing to affirm she thought the coronavirus was infectious during her hearing but unwilling to respond to questions about the science around human-caused climate change, despite the public controversy and debate about both issues.

“Senator Harris’s question was about the infectiousness, not the dangerousness, of COVID-19. The Supreme Court has described ‘climate change’ as a ‘controversial subject’ and ‘sensitive political topic’,” Barrett wrote. “As a sitting judge, it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in further on the matter.”

When pressed about her relationship with Royal Dutch Shell, Barrett said she had recused herself from cases involving four Shell entities because her father, who served as a top lawyer for the oil company, had been involved with them. She refused to say whether she would recuse herself from cases involving other oil and energy companies, arguing it was a question that would need to be addressed in the context of each case.

Environmental groups accuse the Trump administration of downplaying the risk to wildlife from oil spills.

“Environmental groups asked a federal court Wednesday to throw out the Trump administration’s assessment of oil and gas activity’s likely effects on endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico, saying it dismisses the chance of another disastrous blowout like the BP spill of 2010,” the Associated Press reports.

The groups objected to an assessment from the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing in a lawsuit that the report underestimated the risk to wildlife from oil spills and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service should write a new version. 

At the heart of the dispute is the federal agency’s decision to exclude the impact of a large oil spill, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, based on a prediction that such a massive spill was unlikely to occur in the next half-century. The groups behind the lawsuit — including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Turtle Island Restoration Network — say the chance of a large spill is even higher now as companies drill in deeper water and contend with the effects of hurricanes that can damage oil and gas facilities.

A Montana Democrat’s bill aims to ensure a controversial figure stays out of top post at BLM. 

“A new bill from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and other lawmakers would bar the Trump administration from seeking to overturn the ruling ousting William Perry Pendley from his role as the de facto director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM),” The Hill reports.

The Interior Department has said it intends to appeal a ruling from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris that said Pendley was serving unlawfully as acting director of the agency. The ruling also called into question land management decisions approved while Pendley was heading the agency.

“William Perry Pendley is not an appropriate choice to lead, work in, or advise any public land management agency due to his record prior to his employment at the Bureau of Land Management, and his continuing work there,” the bill states.

Pendley continued to serve as acting director of the agency even after the Trump administration withdrew his formal nomination for the post under pressure from Republican senators who saw Pendley as a controversial figure, in part due to previous statements he made opposing federal land ownership. Since the court decision forced him to step down from the top post, he has served in a deputy director role.

A Trump administration environmental rollback helps clear the way for mining near Okefenokee in Georgia.

“A company planning to mine for titanium near the Okefenokee Swamp has had a major hurdle removed: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says there are almost no wetlands or other waterways on the site that are protected by federal water law,” Atlanta-based WBAE reports

The decision reflects a Trump administration rule change that scaled back the waters considered eligible for protection under the Clean Water Act. The Army Corps of Engineers determined that under the revised rules it did not have jurisdiction over the wetlands that would be impacted by the mining project.

Critics argue that pollution from the mining project, which still needs to seek state licenses, could seep into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which protects 630 square miles of wetlands, cypress forests and flooded prairies near the Georgia-Florida border.


The deadly North Complex Fire is part of an escalating catastrophe.

The Washington Post dissects the causes of California’s North Complex Fire, which was triggered by a lightning strike on Aug. 17. The fire, spread by strong, dry winds, would go on to kill 15 people and destroy the only school in Berry Creek, Calif., leaving 50 out of 53 students homeless.

It’s part of a dangerous trend, as hotter, drier weather contributes to intense blazes that already outpace predictions from climate models. 

“Extreme fires like the North Complex are almost impossible to fight safely, experts say, and they are becoming more common,” our colleagues Sarah Kaplan, John Muyskens, Chris Alcantara and Andrew Freedman report. “Five of California’s six biggest recorded wildfires, including the North Complex, happened in 2020.”

Homeowners and renters are rarely informed of wildfire risk.

“Almost 60 million homes were within less than a mile of a wildfire between 1992 and 2015. And those numbers only continue to grow as climate change increases the risk of bigger, more frequent blazes in the American West,” NPR reports.

But an NPR analysis found that most states have no requirements that the government, real estate agents or sellers disclose when a home that is up for sale or rent is at risk from wildfires. California and Oregon are the two exceptions, but even in those states, disclosures of fire risk are often buried in hundreds of pages of legal documents. The lack of notification of fire risk stands in sharp contrast to warnings about flood risk, which are required in 29 states.

The Almeda Fire destroyed the southern Oregon towns of Talent and Phoenix. With limited resources and a powerful wind, there was little firefighters could do. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)