Trump's Environmental Rollbacks Are Racist. Here's How Biden Can Overturn Them Immediately.

A few executive actions from President-Elect Joe Biden could have real-world impacts for Black, Indigenous, and people of color at home.
November 24, 2020, 2:30pm
Trump's four years of handouts to oil, gas, and coal companies mean shortened lives within Black, Indigenous, brown, and low-income communities, say environmental justice experts​.
Trump's four years of handouts to oil, gas, and coal companies mean shortened lives within Black, Indigenous, brown, and low-income communities, say environmental justice experts. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
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A series that explores what parts of Trump’s legacy will be lasting, and what parts can be quickly undone by a new administration.

With Joe Biden heading to the White House, the fossil fuel industry is preparing for a fight. Oil and gas companies are racing to acquire leases in the Gulf of Mexico and a last-minute federal auction on drilling rights in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could take place on January 18, two days before Biden’s inauguration. 

These are parting gifts from the Trump administration to an industry that donated heavily to Republicans during the election, and one that is deeply worried about Biden reversing four years of aggressive deregulation. Snapping up last-minute leases is one way oil and gas companies are preparing for stronger federal action on climate change, according to Dallas Goldtooth, a campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. 

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“They’re trying to get as far they can so that when Biden gets into office these corporations have legal arguments to push back on any restrictions,” he told VICE News. “Beyond the wonk talk of policy, this means life and death for Indigenous communities.”

Trump’s four years of handouts to oil, gas, and coal companies also mean shortened lives within Black, brown, and low-income communities, say environmental justice experts, whether that’s children getting asthma from breathing in highway fumes, people developing cancer living next to coal plants, or disadvantaged coastal areas exposed to deadly floods and storms. 

Biden might not be able to pass his $2 trillion climate spending plan if Republicans retain control of the Senate, those experts say, but he can take immediate action to shrink the power of the fossil fuel industry and protect people’s health and lives.   

Here’s how:

Protect the food supply in the North from oil drilling

Opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling doesn’t just put at risk one of the most biologically diverse habitats in North America, home to polar bears, wolverines, golden eagles, and millions of migratory birds. It also threatens a 200,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd that is an important source of food, clothes, and tools for Gwich’in people that have lived in the region for thousands of years. 

“Many of those communities still wholly depend on hunting,” Goldtooth said, because the cost of shipping in all their food is prohibitively expensive. 

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“You put oil rigs in that area and it disrupts the patterns of this caribou herd,” he said. “People are not going to be able to feed their children.”

Biden is opposed to new drilling on public lands and he’s specifically promised to ban oil and gas production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—calling it “a big disaster.” But halting drilling by companies that bought leases from the Trump administration might not necessarily be easy; lawyers for the Blackfeet Nation are still fighting to cancel Montana drilling leases sold almost 40 years by the Reagan administration.  

Still, Biden has options. His administration could deny permits related to air pollution, animal protection, and water usage, delaying production in an Arctic region that many major banks are already avoiding because of environmental concerns and poor economics. 

There might be a similar fight brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, where Shell, BP, Chevron, and other companies placed more than $120 million in bids for drilling leases over the past week or so. “They wanted to jump on it before the window potentially closes and there are more regulatory hurdles,” a senior energy analyst for S&P Global Platts Analytics explained to the Texas Tribune. Biden has the power to wind down new drilling in offshore areas, but as in Alaska, halting already-sold leases could be more difficult. 

Phase out coal plants that poison Black people’s air

One of Trump’s most damaging actions on climate change was to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, a policy brought in under Barack Obama to reduce emissions from fossil fuel-generating plants one-third by 2030. Yet that rollback falls especially hard on people of color.

In addition to releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases, coal also poisons the air of nearby communities with particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. More than 75 percent of the 2 million people who live within 3 miles of the most toxic plants are people of color earning on average $14,626 per year, according to a NAACP study. 

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“When you’re exposed to toxic air pollution it causes long-term chronic medical conditions—everything from liver and kidney diseases, heart disease, cancer clusters, lung diseases,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, a vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation, told VICE News. “And that makes you more vulnerable to infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.” 

If Republicans end up controlling the Senate it will be unlikely that Biden can pass into legislation his promise to move towards 100 percent clean in the U.S. by 2030. But Biden’s team is reportedly considering executive action that could replace Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy regulation, which would potentially reduce power sector emissions 0.7 percent below 2005 levels within the next decade, compared to 32 percent under the Obama-era plan. 

The new Democratic president will have to fight fossil-fuel burning utilities like Oklahoma Gas & Electric, however, as well as coal-heavy states such as Ohio and West Virginia, which are reportedly racing to comply with the Trump plan two years early. If states are already meeting Affordable Clean Energy goals by the time Biden gets in, then courts may be more likely rule that the plan is legitimate, thus “making it harder for a potential Joe Biden administration to peel it back,” the Washington Examiner said

Kill pipelines that threaten Indigenous peoples’ water

Within days of becoming president, Trump signed actions moving forward the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, projects that have faced intense opposition from Indigenous peoples and other communities across the Midwest for the threats they pose to local water supplies, in addition to accelerating the climate emergency.  

“If Biden really wants to come out the gate hard and take action on climate change, then shutting down those pipelines is no better signal,” Goldtooth said. 

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The Dallas-based owner of Dakota Access is fighting in court to keep the pipeline operational after a federal judge revoked a permit allowing it to run under a South Dakota lake used by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Energy Transfer partners has reported over 300 leaks on its network of pipelines since 2012. 

“There’s a lot of concern within the tribal community on the impact of leaks on their water source and on the health of their community,” Elizabeth Kronk Warner, Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Utah and a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, told VICE News. Biden, who has not yet weighed in on the pipeline, could allay tribal concerns by revoking the pipeline’s authorization to operate, which might stall and perhaps even shut down Dakota Access for good. 

In the meantime, he’s promised to rescind a presidential permit for Keystone XL, thereby killing a pipeline from the Canadian tar sands that would run through the Oglala Aquifer. 

Proponents of that project aren’t ready to give up. TC Energy is trying to build as much of the pipeline as possible before Biden’s inauguration, while Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is pleading with the president-elect to change his mind. Biden is unlikely to be swayed, however, given that he “strongly opposed” Keystone XL during his campaign. 

Give a voice back to ‘front-line communities’

Trump was so brazen in his support for oil and gas that at one industry conference executives broke out in laughter. Climate advocates want Biden to instead grant top-level access to communities harmed by fossil fuels and heavy industry. 

That could include nominating Democratic Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as Interior secretary, making her the first Indigenous person overseeing oil and gas drilling on public lands. The Sunrise Movement is also pushing for Biden to appoint Green New Deal champions Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison to top positions—decisions which a Republican Senate would adamantly oppose.   

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Though groups like Sunrise were “encouraged” by Biden nominating John Kerry to the new position of special presidential envoy for climate, activists were furious about Democratic Louisiana representative Cedric Richmond being tapped to lead the White House's office of public engagement. Richmond has received more than $340,000 from the oil and gas industry, and has been accused by Louisiana activists of ignoring their fight against petrochemical producers in “Cancer Alley.” 

Biden is considering former Obama energy secretary Ernest Moniz for a cabinet position as well, despite Moniz serving on the board of the coal and gas-burning utility Southern Company.  

“Protecting and respecting front-line communities begins with appointing administration personnel who listen to and support those communities,” Jane Patton, co-founder of No Waste Louisiana and a senior campaigner with the Center for International Environmental Law, told VICE News. 

But in other areas Biden will undoubtedly make the voice of people exposed to environmental harm stronger. 

On the advice of oil and gas companies and other industrial polluters, Trump earlier this year pushed forward big changes to the National Environmental Protection Act, a Nixon-era policy that gives people directly affected by new pipelines, chemical plants, freeways, or other infrastructure projects a chance to raise concerns. In doing so, Santiago Ali argued, “this administration limited the voice of frontline communities.” 

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Biden has signaled he’ll undo those NEPA changes, giving people the ability to contest, or offer alternatives to, health-damaging projects next to their homes. That would immediately improve protections for communities of color, Santiago Ali said, given that toxic facilities and other polluting infrastructure tend to be built in areas where Black and brown people live. 

“We want to make sure their voice is playing a stronger role,” he said. 

Fire the climate deniers appointed by Trump

When Trump demoted a top government climate scientist named Michael Kuperbeg right before the election and replaced him with the climate denier Ryan Maue, he wasn’t just dealing a last-minute blow to science. It was also an attack on Black, brown and Indigenous peoples. 

Before Trump reassigned him, Kuperbeg had led a government agency in charge of producing the annual National Climate Assessment. Last year’s edition of the assessment concluded that “low-income communities and some communities of color are often already overburdened with poor environmental conditions and are disproportionately affected by, and less resilient to, the health impacts of climate change.”

One of Biden’s immediate actions needs to be firing the dozens of climate deniers that Trump has appointed to the upper levels of his administration, while figuring out ways to replace the hundreds of scientists and experts who were either let go or left on their own over the past four years, Kronk Warner argued.    

“His Day One priority needs to be repairing the expertise loss that happened,” she said. 

Filling the Biden administration with experts that understand the disproportionate impacts of climate change on people of color, Santiago Ali argues, will make easier to win all the other climate fights ahead: blocking drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, shutting down coal plants, stopping oil pipelines, and giving communities stronger tools to fight back against new polluting projects.  

“We can’t win on climate change,” he concludes, “if we don’t win on environmental injustice.”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter. 

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