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Biden-Harris Administration’s ‘All of Government’ Approach to Addressing Climate Change and Environmental Justice

April 22, 2021

The Biden-Harris administration has set its sights on an ambitious environmental policy agenda, focusing on climate change and environmental justice as key initiatives, and intends to implement its agenda through an “all of government” approach. The all-of-government strategy, first deployed in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s, employs a coordinated, multi-department, multi-agency approach to address particularly complex problems.

The administration’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad established three working groups at the core of the all-of-government strategy. They bring together cabinet members and people in other key positions across numerous federal agencies and departments to address climate change, environmental justice, and related economic revitalization issues.

  • National Climate Task Force: The task force will lead the all-of-government approach and implement federal actions aimed at, among other things, reducing climate pollution, delivering environmental justice, protecting public health, and stimulating job growth. The executive order permits the members of the task force to prioritize action on climate change in their policymaking and budget processes and procurement efforts and their engagement with state, local, tribal and territorial governments.
  • Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization: The working group is charged with coordinating the identification and delivery of federal resources to revitalize communities whose economies are focused on coal, oil, gas, and power plants. Coordination with state, local, and tribal officials; unions; environmental justice organizations; community groups; and other stakeholders will enable the group to assess opportunities to protect the interests of coal and power plant workers.
  • White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council: The executive order provides for a variety of specific actions to be taken, including new agency offices, screening tools, and directives to strengthen and coordinate enforcement. The council has been established to develop strategies to address current and historic environmental injustice and identify clear performance metrics to ensure accountability.

ALL-OF-GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO CLIMATE CHANGE

EPA’s Central Role

EPA will maintain a central role on climate change–related efforts, beginning with “clearing the deck” of Trump-era policies that conflict with the Biden-Harris administration’s goals. So far, EPA has quickly reinstated the agency’s climate change webpage and reconfigured the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. EPA also received an early assist from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which struck down the Trump EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy rule. At EPA’s request, the DC Circuit withheld a portion of its order that would have reinstated the Clean Power Plan, leaving EPA with a blank slate on which to craft its own policy for regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power plants. Also helpful to EPA was the DC Circuit’s separate vacatur of another rule that made it more difficult to regulate additional source categories under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act.    

EPA is expected to implement aggressive measures to combat climate change, including more stringent mobile source regulations, standards for methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and potentially new programs for stationary sources. While EPA has not yet signaled how it plans to regulate stationary sources, there are a couple of approaches it could take.  First, it could for the first time set a national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for GHG emissions. Second, EPA could consider a program similar to the Clean Power Plan that would regulate emissions from power plants, or even additional source categories, under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act.

Enlisting the Rest of the Executive Branch

President Biden’s executive orders make clear that EPA will not be acting alone, directing a broad range of agencies to take actions to address climate change:

  • Department of the Interior (DOI): The DOI will have a very significant role in implementing the administration’s climate change agenda because it has authority over energy project leasing on federal lands. Under President Biden’s executive order, the DOI will pause new oil and gas leases pending further review while facilitating development of renewable energy sources. To date, Secretary Deb Holland has implemented the administration’s clearing-the-deck strategy by rescinding a variety of Trump administration orders that, for example, prioritized oil and gas development and expedited National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews.
  • Department of Agriculture: The department’s ability to provide financial assistance for GHG-reducing practices enables it to play a significant role in the administration’s climate change strategy. It could tweak existing programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or Conservation Reserve Program to emphasize climate goals, or even implement new climate change–specific policies.
  • Department of Energy: The president’s executive order and proposed budget demonstrate a clear emphasis on developing clean energy technologies, which could include anything from wind and solar to biofuels, battery storage, carbon sequestration, or even direct removal of carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Department of Defense (DOD): As a major energy user, the DOD can make a significant impact on climate change through its procurement process by shifting toward biofuels, electric vehicles, or other low-carbon energy sources wherever possible. The agency will also have a role in developing climate resilience policy due to its need to adapt to a changed climate and weather events around the world. 

ALL-OF-GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

The Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis outlined several additional key provisions related to environmental justice and the implementation of the all-of-government approach. The order directed all executive departments and agencies to review and take action to address actions during the last four years that conflict with the Biden-Harris administration’s environmental justice goals. In carrying out this review, heads of agencies are directed to seek input from the public and stakeholders, including environmental justice organizations.

The Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases was established to provide recommendations on the current methodologies for calculating the social cost of carbon, social cost of nitrous oxide, and social cost of methane to ensure the methodologies take account of “climate risk, environmental justice, and intergenerational equity.” The chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, director of Office of Management and Budget, and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy will co-chair the group comprising officers representing 11 agencies and departments.

Section 222 of the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad outlined specific directives for the EPA and Department of Justice (DOJ).

  • Environmental Protection Agency: The order directs the EPA to “strengthen enforcement of environmental violations with disproportionate impacts on underserved communities.” The agency is also charged with creating a notification program providing real-time data to the public on environmental pollution in frontline and fence-line communities that experience the most significant exposure to pollution and environmental contaminants.
  •  Department of Justice: The DOJ is tasked with ensuring there is “comprehensive attention” given to environmental justice throughout the department. The administration has suggested the department create an Office of Environmental Justice that would coordinate the DOJ’s environmental justice activities nationwide.