New Biden Order Creates Federal Climate-Focused Policy Coordination

President Biden signed a new executive order on January 27 adopting new policies and policymaking structure regarding climate change and its central place in the domestic policy firmament.

Biden’s January 20 climate order was about undoing things that Trump had done. The new order is about putting new structures and practices in their place.

Organization. Section 202 of the new order establishes a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy within the Executive Office of the President, to be headed by a National Climate Advisor appointed by the President (no Senate confirmation necessary). Section 203 then appoints a National Climate Task Force, chaired by the Advisor and with a membership that includes the Secretary of 12 of the 15 Departments (everyone except Education, State, and Veterans Affairs), the heads of GSA, CEQ, EPA, OMB, and OSTP, and other White House staffers. The Task Force’s brief is to “facilitate planning and implementation of key Federal actions to reduce climate pollution; increase resilience to the impacts of climate change; protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, oceans, and biodiversity; deliver environmental justice; and spur well-paying union jobs and economic growth.”

Infrastructure. The lengthy order eventually has a header, “EMPOWERING WORKERS THROUGH REBUILDING OUR INFRASTRUCTURE FOR A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY.” Under that header, there is first a statement of policy:

Sec. 212.  Policy.  This Nation needs millions of construction, manufacturing, engineering, and skilled-trades workers to build a new American infrastructure and clean energy economy.  These jobs will create opportunities for young people and for older workers shifting to new professions, and for people from all backgrounds and communities.  Such jobs will bring opportunity to communities too often left behind — places that have suffered as a result of economic shifts and places that have suffered the most from persistent pollution, including low-income rural and urban communities, communities of color, and Native communities.

(Saying this is the easy part. Doing it is hard – witness the pushback that Climate Ambassador John Kerry got this week when he said that displaced coal miners and oil drillers could just get jobs as solar panel or wind turbine technicians. Tone aside, see the Washington Post Fact Checker’s “Two Pinocchios” given to Kerry’s math this morning.)

The order then goes on to address infrastructure specifically:

Sec. 213.  Sustainable Infrastructure.  (a)  The Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall take steps, consistent with applicable law, to ensure that Federal infrastructure investment reduces climate pollution, and to require that Federal permitting decisions consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  In addition, they shall review, and report to the National Climate Advisor on, siting and permitting processes, including those in progress under the auspices of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, and identify steps that can be taken, consistent with applicable law, to accelerate the deployment of clean energy and transmission projects in an environmentally stable manner.

This connects back to last week’s Biden order, which also repealed all the project delivery expedition procedures adopted by the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, and in their place just left instructions that “The Director of OMB and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality shall jointly consider whether to recommend that a replacement order be issued.” The new order means that OMB and CEQ now have to get permission from the National Climate Adviser before putting any new expedited project delivery procedures in place.

There is also a part (b) to section 213 of the new order:

(b)  Agency heads conducting infrastructure reviews shall, as appropriate, consult from an early stage with State, local, and Tribal officials involved in permitting or authorizing proposed infrastructure projects to develop efficient timelines for decision-making that are appropriate given the complexities of proposed projects.

This kind of consultation is always welcome, but to the extent that the lack of “efficient timelines for decision-making” are the fault of the federal government requiring multiple federal agencies to review the project on differing and consecutive timetables, simple consultation won’t do much.

Environmental justice. Later on in the order, there is another relevant header: “SECURING ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND SPURRING ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY.” Section 219 declares the policy, which applies to transportation as well as to many other fields:

Sec. 219.  Policy.  To secure an equitable economic future, the United States must ensure that environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern.  That means investing and building a clean energy economy that creates well‑paying union jobs, turning disadvantaged communities — historically marginalized and overburdened — into healthy, thriving communities, and undertaking robust actions to mitigate climate change while preparing for the impacts of climate change across rural, urban, and Tribal areas.  Agencies shall make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, as well as the accompanying economic challenges of such impacts.  It is therefore the policy of my Administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.

The order then creates another interagency council, this one called the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, to be chaired by the head of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Secretary of Transportation is also a member of this new EJ council. The Council is charged to “develop a strategy to address current and historic environmental injustice by consulting with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and with local environmental justice leaders.  The Interagency Council shall also develop clear performance metrics to ensure accountability, and publish an annual public performance scorecard on its implementation.”

The development of these “performance metrics” should be interesting. By February 2022, the order requires the head of OMB to “publish on a public website an annual Environmental Justice Scorecard detailing agency environmental justice performance measures.”


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