How Will the 2020 Election Results Affect U.S. Environmental Policy?

Mon Nov 9th, On Environmental Law, by

The vast differences between the Biden and Trump platforms mean the U.S. environmental policy is likely to change quite a bit in the wake of the 2020 election. Joe Biden advocates what he calls a “clean energy revolution,” while Donald Trump’s term was spent rolling back significant environmental protections. Many of the environmental policies that have been recently changed were originally created under the Obama-Biden administration, and a Biden presidency will likely hope to restore these policies to their original form. A Trump second term would likely have seen further rollbacks and deregulations, in addition to maintaining the changes already made. Environmental policy stands to see many changes over the next four years.

Both candidates signaled the environmental goals of their potential administrations. Trump claimed his intention would have been to protect the environment with a larger focus on trying to increase jobs and encourage a type of America first energy dominance. The reality of the Trump term in office, however, is that long-established regulatory policies were changed in a relatively short period of time. By contrast, Biden’s “clean energy future” aims for a carbon neutral power sector as soon as 2035. Many of Biden’s policies are similar to those of the Obama administration. However, Biden has also moved to the left on climate change and environmental justice.

Differences Between Trump and Biden on Environmental Policy

Trump’s idea for an “American energy independence” sought to reduce U.S. energy reliance upon foreign suppliers and foster the growth of domestic energy sources. These favored domestic energy sources consisted mainly of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). This preference explains the Trump administration’s repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce emissions from U.S. power plants. Trump replaced this plan with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which alters the federal emissions reduction regime and allows states to determine their own clean energy goals.

Other energy policy actions taken by the Trump administration include:

(1)               An executive order designed to lessen the use for foreign electric equipment on the U.S. power grid;
(2)               Altered rules established by the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 to allow states to have more flexibility in setting their energy rates;
(3)               Changed safety standards for offshore drilling to speed up U.S. oil production;
(4)               Changed regulations regarding how to dispose of coal ash;
(5)               Established a U.S. Department of Transportation rule allowing for the transportation of liquified natural gas by rail;
(6)               Rewritten rules pertaining to the implementation of NEPA so that federal environmental reviews of energy and infrastructure projects might be fast-tracked; and
(7)              Repealed rules regarding oil and gas fracking and methane emissions.

These changes were implemented using different methods, including the issue of permits, alteration of agency rules, and the release of executive orders. On occasion, the Trump administration has attempted to effect energy policy change through trade sanction. However, the bulk of the Trump administration energy policy changes came in the form of agency rulemaking, which it wielded to repeal and replace much of the Obama-era environmental policy. Many of these regulatory changes are already subject to litigation, and others are likely to follow, and foreknowledge of this likelihood has led the administration to try to author rules that can withstand legal challenge.

Had Trump been reelected, the administration would have presumably continued with this aggressive rulemaking and remaking, and that most of this work would have continued to support the fossil fuel industry and isolate U.S. energy production.

Within his first year in office, Trump took several actions to signal a desire to roll back regulatory efforts on the global level. After withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, the administration replaced NAFTA with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, (“UMCA”) which mirrors environmental provisions in NAFTA. However, it also contains allocations earmarked to support the oil and gas industries. These provisions reduce duties and allow energy companies from the U.S. to bid on Mexican oil and gas exploration leases, as well as they eliminate tariffs on steel for pipelines.

The administration issued sanctions and executive orders to restrict the use of foreign energy. The theory behind these actions was to strengthen the production and export of U.S. oil and gas. Had Trump been reelected, he would likely have continued to shrink the U.S. role in furthering international climate policy. He would also likely have continued with efforts to strengthen the production of fossil fuels. Any international diplomacy from the Trump administration having to do with climate and energy would likely have come in the form of efforts to promote U.S. produced energy sources abroad.


Biden’s campaign criticized the Trump Administration’s deregulation and reversal of Obama-Biden’s climate change efforts. With his election, Biden will likely take action on his first day in office to fight climate change, and he has worked with a task force with members of the progressive wing of the Democratic party to make recommendations for these changes.

Biden will begin work by issuing Executive Orders reversing some of the changes made by Trump. Among these efforts will be executive orders: (1) setting “aggressive” methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations; (2) creating “rigorous” fuel economy standards on all sales of light- and medium duty vehicles that move the country towards 100% zero emissions on all new car sales; (3) creating permanent protections for the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and similar federal lands affected by deregulation; and (4) banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters.

 Biden’s platform signaled a desire to work together with Congress to create a path toward net-zero emissions no later than 2050. This goal is set for immediate priority, and Biden hopes to pass legislation within his first year in office. Any legislation would set requirements for polluters to pay for the full cost of all carbon pollution they emit.

Among other goals are to reclaim the U.S.’s leadership position in effecting global efforts to combat climate change. Biden has signaled his intention to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as a desire to organize a world summit on climate to encourage more participation in greenhouse gas reduction. Biden’s campaign claims a desire to not “allow other nations, including China, to game the system” by creating a geographical space where pollution is tolerated. However, the campaign does not elaborate on how this goal might be achieved.

Other international initiatives advocated by the Biden climate task force include:

(1)               a global moratorium on offshore drilling in the Arctic;
(2)               A commitment among the nations of the G-20 to end export finance subsidies of high-carbon projects;
(3)               A financing program for lower carbon investments in other countries; and
(4)               Reforms to the International Monetary Fund and regional bank standards to give priority to low-carbon projects.

The Biden climate task force seeks to create a clean energy economy by investing $2 trillion in clean energy and environmental initiatives. The specific plans include:

(1)               Setting a goal for net zero GHG emissions by 2050;
(2)               Cutting the carbon footprint of U.S. building stock in half by 2035;
(3)               An allocation of $400 billion of federal funds toward clean energy research specifically;
(4)               Seeking to eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2035;
(5)               installing 500 million solar panels; and
(6)               installing 60,000 wind turbines.

Funding for these energy initiatives would come from a reversal of the 2017 Republican tax cut that reduced individual and corporate tax rates. This depends upon legislating a successful reversal of that tax cut under a Democratic majority Congress.

Biden’s administration will establish a new initiative, ARPA-C, designed to decarbonize various U.S. business sectors, address the problem of nuclear waste disposal, increase U.S. offshore wind production by 2030; and speed up the adoption of carbon capture sequestration technology at U.S. power plants. The Biden campaign does not, at present, seem to support a carbon tax, or a full ban on fracking. The most recent statements made by Biden suggest his support for a decreasing reliance upon fossil fuel overall, adopted over time.

A Biden administration can implement some components of these domestic policy through rulemaking and executive order. Other aspects will require the help of Congress. For example, Congress would have to agree to a reversal of the 2017 tax cuts, as well as to the allocation of money toward the clean infrastructure initiatives and approval of a federal carbon tax.

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