President Joe Biden will issue a slate of executive orders on Wednesday designed to make climate change a national security priority for years to come, reshaping the U.S. oil and gas industry and delivering victories for environmental advocates on a central pillar of his new administration.
In a sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s focus on increasing fossil fuel production, Biden’s orders will press pause on auctions of federal lands and waters to oil and gas companies, expand conservation protections for large swathes of federal land, create a new civilian conservation corps and promise to deliver economic help to coal-producing regions suffering from the industry’s decline.
Biden will still need Congress to accomplish his target of spending $2 trillion on climate change to help reach the goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035 and across the economy by 2050. But the orders to be issued Wednesday show Biden taking aggressive steps to launch a government-wide effort toward tackling climate change.
Green groups were quick to welcome Biden’s climate initiatives, which had been the subject of chatter among environmental activists for weeks. Many of those groups had spent the past four years locked in court challenges against Trump’s own steady stream of executive orders.
“These actions stand in stark contrast to the denial of climate change and the attacks our oceans and coasts have faced over the past four years,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, a group advocating for protection of oceans, said of Biden’s plans to place an open-ended moratorium on the issuing new leases for oil and gas drilling in federal waters. “This stuff is a major step forward.”
Wednesday’s orders are part of an early slew of actions to fulfill Biden’s campaign pledges to address climate change as one of the top four crises confronting the U.S., alongside the coronavirus pandemic, economic stagnation and racial inequality. Last week, on his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order calling for reconsidering methane emission rules from new oil and gas sources, reversing Trump rules that rolled back vehicles’ tailpipe carbon dioxide limits, and canceling a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, the subject of pitched political battles for a decade.
Wednesday’s orders fill in many of the details left out of last week’s orders, including setting the date that Biden will convene a promised climate change summit with world leaders for April 22, Earth Day.
The new orders will also address “environmental justice” issues, such as by establishing new commissions to address the concerns of so-called fenceline communities that are disproportionately people of color or low-income families that live near pollution sources. Biden is also directing agencies to weigh the climate change effects of all their decisions, a move that could affect procurement strategies for government vehicle fleets or electricity production.
In another move, Biden will call for meeting his campaign promise to place 30 percent of U.S. federal land and waters under conservation protections by 2030. The so-called 30×30 plan was proposed by Rep. Deb Haaland, Biden’s nominee to lead the Interior Department, and former New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall.
The order that has generated the sharpest opposition from oil companies is one that promises to re-write the relationship between the industry and public lands. The Biden administration will order an open-ended freeze on offering public land for oil and gas drilling and coal mining, pending reviews of whether such leases were in the public interest. Under that review, the administration is expected to consider whether to add language to new government lease agreements to tighten standards on greenhouse gas emissions and increase the royalties that companies must pay for minerals they produce on public land.
“The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to manage public resources as strategic financial assets,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group focused on government finances. “The Biden administration must now conduct a thorough review of the rules and regulations guiding federal resource production and implement the reforms necessary to protect the taxpayer interest.”
Wednesday’s move will not affect production currently underway or the oil and gas leases and permits that companies had stockpiled under Trump administration in expectation of new restrictions. That means oil and gas production on federal land, which contributes about one-fifth of overall U.S. production, will not stop immediately, with activity likely to continue for at least another year, energy analysts have said.
People in the oil and gas industry have said they fear the moratorium could end up becoming an outright ban, something Biden had promised on the campaign trail.
But conservation groups and even some industry analysts have argued that the fossil fuel industry is already sitting on leases for thousands of acres of federal land that companies haven’t used yet, and they questioned why the government should offer even more.
The planned review will assess whether the leasing program delivers a fair return for taxpayers, which will include calculating the effects of climate change from fossil fuels produced on federal land. That will significantly reduce the benefits from energy extraction, but the Biden team’s iterative process might also insulate the administration from legal challenges, said National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara.
“It’s clear that they’re going to use sound science and the law to achieve the commitments that he made in the campaign, that are incredibly thoughtful and methodical,” O’Mara said. “It’s encouraging that they’re doing it systematically.”
Still, a pause on new activity could come back to take major bite out of some state budgets, especially those with an out-sized dependence on oil production for revenue, such as New Mexico, which gets more than 10 percent of it revenue from the activity.
New Mexico Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Rob Black said the moratorium would simply lead companies to shift their operations to neighboring Texas, a state with little federal property and a state oil industry regulator who has called concerns about greenhouse gas emissions “misplaced.”
“It won’t further our shared goals on carbon emissions,” Black said during a call with reporters. “It would just cause production to move a few miles down the road to private oil and gas leases [in Texas] or will incentivize it to go overseas to Saudi Arabia and Russia.”