As the world grapples with multiple climate-related disasters on different continents, a watchdog group in Washington is pressing the Biden administration to take more aggressive action to reduce emissions in the United States.
A report, issued by the liberal-leaning Revolving Door Project, outlines a wide number of actions that the group believes President Joe Biden can implement by executive action, meaning that he would not need to coax cooperation from U.S. lawmakers currently preoccupied with looming midterm elections.
Headlines this week underscore the challenges facing the planet. As the report was issued, Pakistan was suffering from catastrophic floods that have displaced tens of thousands and ravaged crops; a powerful typhoon recently dropped a meter of rain on South Korea; China is suffering its worst heat wave on record; and the western United States is gripped by a drought of historic severity.
The Environmental Protection Agency may seem like the most obvious focus of the report’s attention, and the list of steps that agency might take is indeed long. However, the report also homes in on actions available to many other federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense, that are not typically associated with climate change issues.
"Every part of the government should be thinking very much about how to consider climate in the work that they do — how to incorporate it into their existing mandates to protect their various domains, and to be thinking and acting very creatively and aggressively on this,” Max Moran, a research director at the Revolving Door Project and one of the report’s authors, told VOA.
EPA urged to act
The Environmental Protection Agency has the most expansive authority over climate-related issues in the federal government, but its enforcement capacity was significantly reduced during the Trump administration.
“The EPA can be one of the most powerful governmental actors in the United States when it is given the resources and direction to effectively implement its mandate,” the Revolving Door Project notes. “It has broad authority to police pollution and environmental degradation to minimize environmental destruction and public health impacts.”
The report urges the agency to be more aggressive in punishing corporations that violate environmental regulations, pointing out that penalties handed out by the agency often involve companies hiring their own auditors to assure future compliance or funding projects that have little to do with mitigating the damage they have caused.
As the agency works to reinvigorate its enforcement capacity, the report recommends multiple other ways in which it can step up its policing of rules regulating some of the most environmentally damaging emissions, including the powerful greenhouse gas methane.
Departments of Interior, Justice
The report notes a number of measures available to the Department of the Interior to reduce carbon emissions, one of the largest of which is capping abandoned oil and gas wells. Although old wells are not commercially viable, they still emit thousands of tons of methane into the environment every year, and capping them would greatly reduce the volume of gas that escapes.
In addition, the report calls on Interior to stop leasing federal land to energy companies for further development of fossil fuel extraction operations and to reform mining regulations to reduce damage to the environment from factors including the degradation of water sources and the runoff of dangerous chemicals.
The Department of Justice, the report argues, is insufficiently aggressive about prosecuting criminal violations of environmental laws.
“Environmental litigation is key to ensuring that companies and individuals comply with environmental laws,” it says. “Without the threat of litigation, the laws protecting ecosystems and public health are toothless.”
It notes that one government database identifies “thousands of facilities across the country with multiple significant violations” that have remained out of compliance for years without facing prosecution.
Administration shifts climate team
There is reason to believe the Biden administration is prepared to focus more on executive action than it has in the first year and a half of the president’s term. For most of that time, Biden was trying to negotiate with a balky Congress on major environmental legislation, and aggressive action by the executive branch might have made agreement more difficult to reach.
Now, however, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which included the largest investment in green energy and other climate-conscious programs in history, the likelihood of further legislation is unlikely in the near term.
Last week, Biden announced that he has hired a veteran Washington insider, John Podesta, as a senior adviser in charge of rolling out the billions in tax incentives and other programs put in place by the IRA.
At the same time, Biden announced the promotion of Ali Zaidi to national climate adviser, to replace the departing Gina McCarthy. Zaidi is a veteran of the Obama administration where, for eight years, he served in a variety of posts related to climate policy.
In a statement announcing the nomination, Biden seemed to signal that more executive action is coming.
“The Inflation Reduction Act is the biggest step forward on clean energy and climate in history, and it paves the way for additional steps we will take to meet our clean energy and climate goals,” the president said.
While the IRA earned the support of some Republicans in Congress, there is significant resistance in the GOP to greater regulation in general, and greater environmental regulation in particular. If the Biden administration does become more assertive about environmental regulation, Republicans will have little recourse in the near term. However, they are likely to use the issue to try to drive turnout in both November's midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.