President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed sweeping executive orders to force the federal government to plan for and respond to the urgent threat of a warming planet, laying out his historic vision for how the United States can once again become a global climate leader.
The moves will stop new fossil fuel leases on public lands, boost renewable energy development and conservation, as well as create new government offices and interagency groups to prioritize job creation, cleaning up pollution, and environmental justice.
Since taking office last week, Biden and his Cabinet nominees have repeatedly said that tackling the climate crisis is among their top priorities. With these new actions, Biden is detailing how he plans to make that happen by making the federal government central to the response.
“The United States and the world face a profound climate crisis,” the main executive order Biden signed said. “We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents.”
Biden’s early climate moves stand in stark contrast to former president Donald Trump’s actions, which included immediately deleting climate change from the White House website, thwarting climate action, and using his executive power to boost oil, gas, and coal development.
Biden’s day-one climate actions were a direct response to Trump, including directing his staff to review more than 100 anti-environmental rules enacted by Trump and to start the process for the country to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. But these new actions go far beyond reversing Trump’s actions or even reinstating climate initiatives first championed by former president Barack Obama.
“Today makes clear that President Biden hears our generation’s demands loud and clear, understands the power of our movement, and is serious about using executive power to deliver on his campaign promises,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, in a statement.
As part of a broad new executive order, Biden is directing the Department of the Interior to indefinitely pause new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters “to the extent possible.” The order does not specifically ban new coal leases and leaves fossil fuel leases on tribal lands up to their discretion.
Moreover, Biden is directing a review of existing fossil fuel leases and development projects, and asked the Interior Department to find ways to boost renewable energy projects, especially offshore wind, on federally owned water and land.
The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association, balked at the new restrictions. “Restricting natural gas and oil leasing and development on federal lands and waters could threaten U.S. energy security, economic growth and good-paying American jobs,” API tweeted.
While the order would not impact the majority of the nation’s oil and gas drilling and coal mining, which takes place on private land, it could still have a major climate impact. The extraction of fossil fuels on public lands between 2005 and 2014 accounted for roughly 25% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions during that time, according to a United States Geological Survey report.
A key part of the executive orders is creating new offices and committees focused on addressing specific climate problems and goals. Besides formally creating a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by Gina McCarthy, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Biden on Wednesday established a National Climate Task Force that directs members across agencies and departments “to enable a whole-of-government approach to combating the climate crisis,” according to a White House memo.
Biden is also creating a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative designed to create new jobs in conservation, an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization to take on projects that cut the pollution from existing and abandoned fossil fuel infrastructure, as well as a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to boost environmental justice monitoring and enforcement.
Few details were provided on exactly who will be spearheading the many new efforts, how much funding they will receive, or timelines for delivering on these bold goals.
In most cases, Biden’s actions follow through on his climate campaign promises, such as promising to set aside 30% of public lands and waters to conservation by 2030 and having an international climate summit in his first 100 days — one will be held on Earth Day, April 22, 2021.
“The last four years have been a feeding frenzy on our public lands and waters, and this moratorium is the right way to start our overdue transition to a more sustainable economy,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Grijalva last year co-sponsored the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2020 that similarly supports the 30% conservation goal. He said now Congress will move forward with the bill.
“The stakes on climate change just simply couldn’t be any higher than they are right now,” John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, said at a press briefing Wednesday.
“The convening of this summit is essential to ensuring that 2021 is going to be the year that makes up for the lost time of the last four years,” he added, referencing the upcoming climate meeting. “The world will measure us by what we can do here at home.”
Additionally, McCarthy on Wednesday said the US is planning to release its updated climate commitment to the Paris climate agreement before the April summit.
As part of a separate memorandum on scientific integrity, Biden is reestablishing scientific advisory committees disbanded under Trump. Separately, he’s also restarting the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
This story has been updated to include reactions from the Sunrise Movement, the American Petroleum Institute, and Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva.
This story has been updated to include comments from Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, as well as Gina McCarthy, head of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.
This story has been updated to include an excerpt from the main executive order signed by Biden on Wednesday.