10 Big Biden Environmental Rules, and What They Mean

The Biden administration has been racing this spring to finalize a slew of major environmental regulations, including rules to combat climate change, a first-ever ban on asbestos and new limits on toxic chemicals in tap water.

Many of the rules had been in the works since President Biden’s first day in office, when he ordered federal agencies to reinstate or strengthen more than 100 environmental regulations that President Donald J. Trump had weakened or removed. The president has pledged to cut the emissions that are driving climate change roughly in half by 2030. That’s something that scientists say all industrialized nations must achieve to keep global warming to relatively safe levels.

Lawyers in the Biden administration have sought to use every available tool to protect the rules from being gutted by a future administration or a new Congress.

Under the 1996 Congressional Review Act, Congress can delete new federal regulations by a simple majority vote within 60 legislative days of their publication in the Federal Register. Senate Republicans used that procedure in early 2017 to wipe out 14 regulations within 16 days that had been written by the Obama administration.

To avoid that fate, the White House told federal agencies to get major rules on the books by this spring. That doesn’t mean a new occupant of the White House couldn’t undo them through the regular rule-making process, or that the Supreme Court couldn’t eventually strike them down. But it cuts off one possible line of attack.

Here are 10 major environmental rules that the Biden administration rushed out the door to meet its self-imposed spring deadline.

The federal government’s most significant climate regulation, this rule by the Environmental Protection Agency is designed to slash tailpipe pollution. Transportation is the segment of the American economy that generates the most greenhouse gases. The rule does not ban sales of gasoline-powered cars or mandate sales of all-electric vehicles, but it increasingly limits the amount of pollution allowed from auto tailpipes over time so that, by 2032, more than half the new cars sold in the United States would most likely be zero-emissions vehicles, up from just 7.6 percent last year.

That would avoid more than seven billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 30 years, according to the E.P.A. That’s the equivalent of removing a year’s worth of all the greenhouse gases generated by the United States.

This E.P.A. regulation cuts pollution from power plants, the nation’s second-largest source of planet-warming emissions. It requires existing coal plants in the United States to reduce 90 percent of their greenhouse pollution by 2039. It also requires future high-capacity power plants that burn natural gas to reduce their emissions 90 percent by 2032.

The rule is widely seen as a death knell for American coal plants. It will also make it difficult for many natural gas plants to operate without using carbon capture and sequestration, a process that traps emissions from smokestacks before they reach the atmosphere and then stores them. That technology is extremely expensive and not fully deployed at any American coal plant.

The E.P.A. estimates that the rule controlling greenhouse gases from power plants would eliminate 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide between now and 2047, which is equivalent to preventing the annual emissions from 328 million gasoline-powered cars.

This E.P.A. rule requires oil and gas producers to detect and fix leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that wafts into the atmosphere from pipelines, drill sites and storage facilities.

Methane lingers in the atmosphere for about a decade after it is released, but it is about 80 times more powerful in the short term at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, which remains in the air for centuries.

The regulation would prevent 58 million tons of methane emissions by 2038, about the equivalent of all the carbon dioxide emitted by American coal-fired power plants in a single year.

The E.P.A. banned chrysotile asbestos, the only type of asbestos still used in the United States, which has been linked to mesothelioma and other cancer.

Known as white asbestos, the mineral is used in roofing materials, textiles and cement as well as gaskets, clutches, brake pads and other automotive parts. It is also a component in diaphragms used to make chlorine.

The rule bans imports but allows companies up to 12 years to phase out the use of asbestos in manufacturing, depending on the facility.

The E.P.A. for the first time is requiring municipal water systems to remove six synthetic chemicals linked to cancers, metabolic disorders and other health problems that are present in the tap water of hundreds of millions of Americans.

The perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, are found in everything from dental floss to firefighting foams to children’s toys. They are called forever chemicals because they degrade very slowly and can accumulate in the body and the environment.

Under the new rule, water utilities must monitor supplies for PFAS chemicals and are required to notify the public and reduce contamination if levels exceed a standard of 4 parts per trillion for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The administration restored several protections under the Endangered Species Act for imperiled animals and plants that had been loosened under Mr. Trump.

The rules, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service, give federal officials more leeway to protect species in a changing climate, bring back protections for animals that are classified as “threatened” with extinction, which is one step short of “endangered,” and clarify that decisions about whether to list a species must be made without considering economic factors.

The Interior Department denied permission for Ambler Road, a proposed 211-mile industrial road through fragile Alaskan wilderness to a large copper deposit. It was an enormous victory for opponents who argued that it would threaten wildlife as well as Alaska Native tribes that rely on hunting and fishing.

The road was essential to reach what is estimated to be a $7.5 billion copper deposit that lies under ecologically sensitive land. There are currently no mines in the area and no requests for permits have been filed with the government; the road was a first step.

The Interior Department found that a road would disturb wildlife habitat, pollute spawning grounds for salmon and threaten the hunting and fishing traditions of more than 30 Alaska Native communities.

The E.P.A. rules for the first time require that almost 12,000 chemical plants and other industrial sites nationwide that handle hazardous materials must explicitly plan for and invest in safety measures against disasters, such as storms or floods, that could trigger an accidental release. For the first time, chemical sites that have had accidents will need to undergo an independent audit. And the rules require chemical plants to share more information with neighbors and emergency responders.

The Interior Department made it more expensive for fossil fuel companies to pull oil, gas and coal from public lands, raising royalty rates for the first time in 100 years in a bid to end bargain-basement fees enjoyed by one of the country’s most profitable industries.

The government also increased more than tenfold the amount of the bonds that companies must secure before they start drilling.

The rate increase was mandated by Congress under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which directed the Interior Department to raise the royalty fee from 12.5 percent, set in 1920, to 16.67 percent. Congress also stipulated that the minimum bid at auctions for drilling leases should be raised from $2 per acre to $10 per acre.

But the sharp jump in bond payments, the first increase since 1960, was decided by the Biden administration, not Congress. It came in response to arguments from environmental groups, watchdog groups and the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the bonds do not cover the cost of cleaning up abandoned, uncapped wells, leaving taxpayers with that burden.

The White House released rules designed to speed up federal construction permits for clean energy projects while requiring federal agencies to more heavily weigh damaging effects on the climate and on low-income communities before approving projects like highways and oil wells.

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