The Biden administration has laid out a roadmap for undoing many of the environmental actions of his predecessor, some of which were approved or enacted within the past six months.
President Joe Biden, hours after he was sworn in Wednesday, issued an executive order to start a process that could lead to amendments or even reversals of many of Donald Trump’s nearly 200 environmental policy decisions.
The president’s order pauses implementation of more than 100 policies while they are under review. Many of them directly affect the Pacific Northwest, and some unraveled compromises that took years, even decades, to reach.
“It’s gonna take some time for the agencies to undo all the damage Trump did, but we will see changes here in the Northwest,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “It’s not guaranteed that Biden’s going to be a great environmental president, and we need to keep the pressure on.”
Biden also vowed to ensure that the United States rejoins the Paris Climate Accord.
Western Environmental Law Center Wildlands Program director and staff attorney Susan Jane Brown said the process of a new administration reviewing current policies to make sure they are consistent with their own priorities is normal, but that the president will have to do more than sign executive orders to make changes.
“What it will take to rollback the rollback is more process, more rulemaking,” Brown said. “There are a series of steps that have to take place.”
Brown said that process could take months or even years to finish, but also includes the opportunity for public comment.
One of the major policies under review is the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which the Trump administration altered last summer. It eliminated environmental impact reports for certain projects and shortened the amount of time these evaluations must be under review. It also reduced the opportunities for public input.
Brown said that Oregon has not seen the full impact of these changes yet, but that it’s only a matter of time.
“In the meantime we are falling further and further behind on the real work that needs to get done,” Brown said. “It’s just disappointing, it’s a missed opportunity frankly because we have to focus on fixing rather than building.”
Lawson Fite, the general counsel for the American Forest Resource Council, said he is optimistic that a thorough review of the policies will reaffirm most if not all of the actions under review.
“We’re hoping for a successful Biden administration and want results in Oregon that support our rural communities and that encourage sustainable activities like forestry,” Fite said.
Many of the Trump administration’s actions on energy sought to expand use and extraction of coal, oil and natural gas.
Notably, the administration scissored out of the Clean Water Act a provision that allowed state and tribal governments to reject federal permit decisions on fossil fuel projects. It’s a power that’s been used locally to stop coal projects and the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas pipeline and export terminal.
“That’s a very important state power that the Trump administration tried to take away,” said VandenHeuvel with Columbia Riverkeeper.
Emissions standards, fuel-efficient vehicle regulations, fossil fuels transport — all of those and more are on the table for review.
The Trump administration loosened restrictions on grazing, oil and gas drilling, and mining on greater sage grouse habitat across the Intermountain West. That decision threatens to spoil a deal reached in 2015 to protect the grouse while keeping the bird off the federal endangered species list, but it will be relatively easy to overturn.
Trump also used his final weeks in office to issue a raft of Endangered Species Act decisions that left Northwest wildlife without protections they’ve had for decades.
Populations for the northern spotted owl in Washington, Oregon and Northern California and monarch butterfly across the West have steadily declined. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said both species warrant more protections, but declined to grant them at the end of last year. Adding to that, the administration chopped the owl’s critical habitat protections by 3.4 million acres in January.
The agency removed the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list entirely, which conservation organizations have called premature. Gray wolves have regained feeble footholds in many states, but are without significant protection in some.
Each of those decisions faces legal challenges.