Biden has promised to undo many of the regulatory rollbacks completed over the past fours years. But some of the Trump administration's under-the-wire rules could end up hampering the Biden administration from aggressively tackling climate change and other issues right out of the gate.
“The last gasps of the administration,” said David J. Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, “have the potential to either be a speed bump or a potential roadblock for the new administration coming in.” His group has launched the “Midnight Watch Project” to track the end-of-term efforts.
One of the first of the last-minute moves since Election Day is in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Interior Department is set this week to ask oil and gas companies to choose where they want to drill in the untouched Alaskan wilderness. Should the Trump administration sell drilling rights within the refuge before Jan. 20, it may be very hard for Biden's team to take back those leases.
In 2017, Republicans in Congress opened nearly 1.6 million acres of caribou and polar bear habitat there to potential petroleum extraction. But it has taken until this year for the department to be ready to hold a sale on drilling rights.
Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told my colleague Juliet Eilperin that Trump's team is “under a tight timeline.” But he added that the department is on legally solid footing: “Our view is that Congress has acted.”
Yet despite the 2017 law mandating a lease sale, Biden has promised to oppose drilling in the refuge, calling it “a big disaster to do that.”
When it's all said and done, the Trump administration may finish a dozen significant actions before Biden's inauguration.
In addition to potentially leasing within the Arctic refuge, officials aim to complete a plan to open up another vast area in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to drilling and to auction off extraction rights on more than 4,100 acres in central California on Dec. 10.
Interior may also formalize a more narrow definition of habitat for endangered species before Jan. 20. It could also further water down prohibitions on the incidental killing of migratory birds — a change long sought by some oil companies whose uncovered oil waste pits attract waterfowl.
At the Energy Department, officials may exempt some clothes washers and dryers from energy-efficiency requirements and change the definition of a showerhead to allow more water to flow before Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take office.
In previous speeches, Trump has complained about how he needs the right shower to maintain his “perfect” hair. Andrew deLaski, head of the energy conservation group Appliance Standards Awareness Project, called the nearly finalized move “policymaking to address the president's pet peeves.”
At the EPA, chief Andrew Wheeler has said the agency will soon finalize a new rule updating the way water companies test for lead contamination in drinking water. The agency may also sign off on air quality standards for both ozone and particulate matter that are lower than what many public health experts say is necessary to prevent premature deaths.
The agency declined to say when any of that work would be complete. “EPA continues to advance this administration’s commitment to meaningful environmental progress while moving forward with our regulatory reform agenda,” spokesman James Hewitt said.
Perhaps most consequentially, the EPA has rules in the works that could tie the hands of the Biden administration.
Under Trump, the agency has proposed limiting the use of scientific research that does not make public their underlying data. The EPA says it is doing so in the name of transparency. It comes after a failed effort by conservative Republicans in Congress to make the change through legislation.
But some of the most important studies documenting the detrimental health impacts of air pollution rely on private medical records — and would no longer be used when crafting regulations.
The Trump administration also wants to prevent future leaders of the agency from including certain positive health effects, known as “co-benefits,” when analyzing anti-pollution rules going forward.
If the Trump administration gets either of those rules across the finish line, it will set up a “really tough battle for the Biden-Harris administration,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“These are really substantial rules that are fundamentally changing the way that mostly regulations on very large industries are implemented,” Rosenberg said, adding that both have been “completely slammed” by the scientific community.
There are a few ways the incoming administration can turn back the clock on any midnight rules.
For one, Biden's team may simply decline to defend any last-minute changes in court when they are inevitably challenged by environmental and public health groups.
Congressional Democrats may also use the first several weeks of 2021 to strike down recently completed regulations with a law called the Congressional Review Act. But their success hinges in large part on whether the party wins two Senate runoff elections in Georgia scheduled for Jan. 5.
In the case of the Arctic oil leasing, it may take several weeks after a drilling rights auction for the leases to be finalized. If Biden takes office before then, the new administration may be able to grind the process to a halt.
It's unclear if drillers will even want to take on the legal, political and engineering challenges of extracting oil and gas from the pristine, frozen landscape. Some major banks have already announced they will not fund oil and gas activities in the Arctic in response to environmental pressure.
But in other cases, the Biden administration will have to go through an entirely new process all over again to stop the Trump rules from taking effect. That could potentially siphon time and energy away from other environmental protection efforts — including heading off the disastrous rise in temperatures because of global warming.
Hayes, who served as Interior deputy secretary under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, said “in some respects, it's not surprising” for there to be so much almost-finished work. “There always are a lot of actions at the end of an outgoing administration.”
“But for this administration,” he added, “it's particularly not surprising given that they've been slow on the uptake, and having had a hard time pushing certain rules through the process.”
Jeff Bezos made the first donations toward his $10 billion pledge to fight climate change.
Amazon's chief executive announced on Monday that he will give $791 million to 16 environmental groups in the first grants from his Earth Fund.
“More than half of the donations went to established environmental groups, with $100 million donations each going to the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and the World Wildlife Fund,” our colleague Steve Mufson reports. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, also gave money to groups concerned with environmental justice.
A top contender to lead Interior Dept. calls for expanding renewable energy on public lands.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) told Reuters that leasing practices on public lands should change to prioritize clean energy. Haaland, who declined to confirm whether she had been vetted for the Interior Department pick, accused the Trump administration of allowing oil and gas companies to “run roughshod” over federal lands and waters.
The New Mexico lawmaker also endorsed a proposal to protect 30 percent of federal lands and waters by 2030 and said Biden should expand national monuments. She did not say whether she would support a waiver program exempting some states if Biden issued a ban on oil and gas drilling on federal lands, a proposal that was floated by New Mexico’s Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D).
Halaand, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, is on a shortlist of candidates thought to include fellow Democratic New Mexico lawmakers Sen. Tom Udall and Sen. Martin Heinrich.
A pile of toxic waste is poisoning a community of color in Dallas.
A six-foot-high mountain of discarded shingles in an illegal toxic waste dump is releasing pollution into a neighborhood of south Dallas settled by formerly enslaved people, a grim example of the way that a legacy of racism perpetuates environmental injustice, our colleague Darryl Fears reports.
The dump started after two White business partners visited the site in 2017 and decided to set up a business allowing truckers to dump shingles at the site. “One of the partners set up an illegal recycling operation that ground black shingles into dust, a process that spewed toxins and fine particulate matter into the air,” Fears writes.
Racially discriminatory housing policies often relegated people of color in Dallas to live in places where they bear the brunt of environmental hazards. “Recent studies have shown that minority residents in Dallas breathe more polluted air than White residents and have a significantly shorter life expectancy,” Fears writes.
Biden pitched union and business leaders on a plan to build half a million electric vehicle charging stations.
Among the labor and corporate heads who met virtually with Biden and Harris on Monday to discuss the economic recovery were United Auto Workers boss Rory Gamble and General Motors chief Mary Barra, whose firm has said it plans to have 20 new electric vehicles by 2023.
In remarks afterward, the president-elect emphasized how constructing a charging network to power those cars can put people to work. "We talked about the need to own the electric vehicle market," Biden said. “We talked about climate a lot.”