Environmental turnaround — 8 issues that will pivot in California’s favor under Biden

Article from San Francisco Chronicle.


Kurtis Alexander
Jan. 24, 2021
Updated: Jan. 24, 2021 7:18 a.m.

As wildfires, heat waves, water scarcity and threats to wildlife intensify in the West, California’s effort to confront these environmental crises now has support in Washington, a stark change from the past four years.

Even as former President Donald Trump spent his final days in office on the sidelines, lamenting his election loss, his administration continued to roll back environmental conservation and gut climate regulations.

In recent weeks, Trump officials fast-tracked new drilling leases, clawed back protected habitat for the spotted owl, relaxed efficiency standards for showerheads, dropped penalties for accidentally killing birds and more. The moves cement a legacy of deference to industry, cheap energy and commerce.

Now, President Biden is working just as aggressively to reverse course. The president signed several executive orders last week, including a directive to rejoin the Paris climate accord, which begin to unwind his predecessor’s actions and realign the nation with California’s ambitious environmental and climate agenda.

“There’s a lot to celebrate,” said Jared Blumenfeld, California’s secretary for environmental protection, who helped lead the state’s fight against Trump’s policies and looks forward to a cooperative relationship with the federal government. “This is a great thing for California and the country and the planet.”

While change is undoubtedly coming, Biden’s early directives only go so far. Some of his demands can be enacted with his signature, like rejoining the nonbinding Paris deal to address global warming.

But overturning Trump on other issues will require months of administrative review or Congressional approval. Even in a Democratic-controlled Congress, big moves could founder because of the Republican votes needed to avoid a filibuster in the Senate.

In California, state-level regulations blunted many of Trump’s environmental rollbacks. When state laws didn’t provide protection, California often created new rules, including bans on pesticides and expanded wetland protections. Still, plenty of Trump’s policies had a direct impact on the state.

The following are eight changes the new president has begun to initiate — or is expected to soon — that are likely to strengthen California’s environmental protections and climate programs.

Boost vehicle efficiency standards: One of Biden’s first executive orders, on public health and the environment, calls for stricter fuel-economy standards for cars and pickup trucks, a move designed to reduce heat-trapping pollution.

The Trump administration had not only blocked an Obama-era plan to tighten the standards, but revoked California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own vehicle emission rules. California is asking for that authority back, a request that likely will be granted. The big question is whether California can get other states to embrace its aggressive emissions policy going forward, as it has in the past.

For the federal government to establish California-level emissions standards for the country, it has to go through a lengthy rulemaking process. However, several auto companies have already committed to making cleaner cars — with or without new regulation.

“We need to make sure California has a waiver,” said Blumenfeld, who intends to work with the federal government, first to restore the state’s regulatory authority and then to secure strict vehicle standards nationwide. “It’s in everybody’s interest to have rules in harmony.”

Reinstate science in decision-making: Biden’s order on health and the environment includes reviewing a transparency rule that prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency from using scientific studies with data sources that aren’t public.

The Trump administration implemented the measure to prevent “secret science” from being used to inform decision-making. Opponents, though, argued that the rule would keep policymakers from evaluating information in important medical research, which often grants participants anonymity.

“If you can’t use science to make public health decisions, you’re tying both hands behind your back and blindfolding yourself,” said Blumenfeld, who ran the federal EPA’s Pacific Southwest Office under President Obama before going to work for the state.

Getting rid of the transparency measure may be as easy as employing the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to rescind recent rules with a simple majority vote. However, some scholars say the rule isn’t eligible and can only be eliminated once another rule is established.

Reduce pumping in the delta: Last week Biden directed federal agencies to review a list of policies that includes pumping operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the hub of California’s water supply and an estuary that’s struggling with too little water.

The Trump administration changed the terms for pumping last year, allowing more delta water to flow to cities and farms. Environmentalists and fishermen criticized the move because water exports invariably mean lower flows in the estuary, leaving rivers dried up and wildlife in harm’s way, including endangered salmon and smelt.

“The scientific analysis was universally thought to be deeply flawed,” said Chris Shutes, a director at the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “The science that was deployed was deployed to get the outcome that was desired. Getting away from that is going to be helpful.”

The Biden administration’s forthcoming review of the pumping terms, called biological opinions, is likely to result in more restrictions on pumping. However, the process of changing the biological opinions could take years. In the meantime, water managers may simply choose to use their discretion to send less water out of the delta.

Halt new oil drilling: The Biden administration ordered a 60-day suspension of new oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters last week, what many see as a first step to curtailing long-term fossil fuel development and reducing the industry’s planet-warming pollution.

The Trump administration, to the contrary, had sought an unparalleled expansion of oil and gas projects, including allowing new drill rigs off the California coast. An offshore drilling plan rolled out by Trump officials three years ago, however, was held up in court, and none of the California ocean operations commenced. Biden is likely to scrap that plan.

Onshore, California saw nearly 2 million new acres of federal lands opened up to potential drilling under Trump, mostly in Kern and Monterey counties. The first lease sales took place last month.

“At a minimum, the new administration can pause the process of issuing new leases,” said Ted Lamm, senior research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, who monitors federal environmental actions. Ultimately, though, Lamm said the administration could go much further in limiting fossil fuel development.

Restore protections in the California desert: The Trump administration announced plans earlier this month to open up millions of acres of the Mojave Desert to new energy projects, an unexpected move that many conservationists hope Biden will undo.

The action upends a hard-fought agreement that sought to balance habitat for tortoises, Joshua trees and other iconic desert flora and fauna with renewable energy projects on federal land. Opponents of the Trump proposal say the changes not only mean more alternative power but mining and other destructive activities.

“Obviously we need lots of land available for solar and wind resources, but a lot of people who watched this thought it was done hastily,” Lamm said. “It threatens lots of desert habitat and threatened species that could be now at risk.”

Biden has the option of simply withdrawing the proposal.

Bump up endangered species protections: Biden’s instructions to federal agencies include a reexamination of the Endangered Species Act, on which Trump had put significant checks. The conditions under which a plant or animal now qualifies for protection and what protections it gets are narrower.

While California has its own endangered species rules, some animals, like the gray wolf, move between states, limiting California’s ability to provide safeguards. In October, the Trump administration delisted the gray wolf.

“The federal policy is what makes regulation consistent and allows species to (safely) cross boundaries,” said Christina Hazard, associate director of wildlife and natural resources for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The Biden administration could choose to amend specific parts of the Endangered Species Act or do a more thorough rewrite of the law, which conservation groups are urging. Many want to see new protections added to help plants and animals weather the changing climate. Either route would require lengthy study and public review.

Tighten logging restrictions in burned forests: Biden’s directive to federal agencies calls for reassessing rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock law that protects natural landscapes from development and other projects.

Some environmentalists want the administration to remove a rule added to NEPA last year that excludes small logging proposals in burned forests from environmental review.

The rule, which applies to plots up to 5,000 acres on Bureau of Land Management property, is meant to clear dead trees swiftly off charred hillsides while the trees still have commercial value. But many scientists have cited the importance of fallen trees to a forest’s recovery, particularly for returning birds and wildlife. They see Trump’s change as a giveaway to the timber industry.

“To say that a clear-cut five times as large as Golden Gate Park has no environmental impact is ludicrous,” said Chad Hanson, an ecologist and co-founder of the environmental group John Muir Project.

Changing the rule would require completing a new rulemaking process.

Hire a more environmentally minded staff: Biden has named several environmental advocates and climate experts to key posts in Washington, marking a change from his predecessor, who often filled jobs with industry leaders.

Veteran regulator Michael Regan, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, was nominated to head the EPA, replacing Andrew Wheeler, who worked as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry. Congresswoman Deb Haaland, D-N.M., a member of the Native American group Pueblo of Laguna, was picked to lead the Interior Department, replacing David Bernhardt, an agriculture lobbyist.

Meanwhile, Biden has put Gina McCarthy, administrator of the EPA under President Obama, in charge of a new White House office on climate policy. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was named to the new post of climate envoy.

Blumenfeld, California’s top environmental regulator, said having qualified and experienced staffers in Washington will help leadership move quickly to carry out Biden’s agenda and signals to government employees working in these offices that the environment and climate are high priorities.

“Just imagine living through the past four years. Really hardworking civil servants have been held hostage to a captor that really didn’t care what they do,” Blumenfeld said. “I don’t think we can underestimate the damage that was done. It’s going to take years of undoing.”


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