If you’re an environmentalist, there are most certainly a few reasons to be optimistic about the incoming Biden administration, but there are also some reasons to remain sober-headed.
On paper, President-elect Joe Biden has a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the relationship between the health of the planet and the health of the U.S. economy. He supports public investment in clean energy projects that would create union jobs while also reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.
In addition, Biden supports banning toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which are known carcinogens and pollutants that are found almost everywhere in the environment. PFAS are toxic chemicals used to make firefighting foam, which has been utilized for decades in the U.S. military and at airports across the United States.
PFAS pose a significant risk to U.S. military firefighters and have been linked to a host of cancers, including (but not limited to):
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Testicular cancer
Environmentalists also hope a Biden administration would reverse some current policies that limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to evaluate risks and impose bans on other toxic chemicals beyond PFAS, including asbestos.
In spite of these many positives, Biden himself has stopped short of supporting more ambitious environmental programs. He opposes the Green New Deal, a progressive package of legislation that would include public works projects, economic reforms, and renewable energy investment.
Barring the results of Senatorial run-offs in Georgia, there is also the fact that a Biden administration may have to contend with a split Congress, including a staunchly opposed Republican Senate.
The potential actions of the Biden administration, therefore, are likely to stem from the levers of the Executive Order and whatever administrators the president-elect appoints to key department positions.
A New EPA May Lead to ‘Safer’ PFAS Regulations
In some ways, merely ending the Trump tenure at the EPA may help stimulate the clean energy sector. In an effort to prop up the fossil fuel industry, President Trump appointed fossil fuel lobbyists, executives, and loyalists to several key positions in the agency.
Consequently, the Trump EPA was marked by rampant deregulation of industry, resulting in increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and lasting environmental problems.
A team of Harvard researchers calculated that the Trump’s administration’s overall environmental agenda could result in 80,000 more deaths per decade, with additional respiratory problems for more than 1 million people.
That kind of environmental havoc is difficult to justify next to the mounting problem of PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in nature.
Manufactured by chemical companies like DuPont for decades, PFAS can be found in the air, soil, and water, and are estimated to be in the drinking water of millions of Americans. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), under the Trump administration, the EPA has all but stalled on tackling PFAS.
By the time Joe Biden takes office, it’s likely the EPA will have failed to set emission limits, clean up pollution sites, or establish any PFAS product bans.
How a Biden-Led EPA May Change Course
A new EPA under Biden could remedy some of the toxic-chemical laws that have led to millions of Americans being exposed to known carcinogens.
In fact, Biden has said he plans to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance and set enforceable limits for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
The “hazardous substance” designation is more than just a label — it would qualify PFAS contamination sites for the Superfund, leading to nationwide cleanups of PFAS sites and require emitters to contribute a significant share of the costs.
Setting limits and new standards for PFAS in drinking water under the SDWA would dramatically reduce contamination and improve public health, as it would apply to all utilities in the country — not just the few local states that currently set exposure limits.
The Biden administration could also direct the EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to phase out non-essential uses of PFAS in its most common consumer uses, such as firefighting foam, food packaging, stain-resistant fabrics, and cosmetics. Such a move could in turn stimulate public and private research into safer alternative substances.
Such changes can be accomplished without passing bills through Congress. From an employment perspective, merely hiring new people at the EPA could even stimulate job growth, as the clean energy sector is already far outpacing traditional energy sectors in job creation.
President-elect Biden has promised to reenter the Paris climate accord, which aims for member states to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement in 2017, making it the only country in the world not to participate.
Committing to clean energy sources could further stimulate job growth at a time when it is sorely needed, and the president has the sole authority to return the United States to the 2015 agreement.
But even with presidential authority, there are some reasons to despair. Some of the president-elect’s early moves have signaled he plans to create a cabinet that is not as green as some environmentalists and climate scientists would hope.
Last week, the Biden transition team hired Michael McCabe to its agency review team at the EPA. In the 1990s and 2000s, McCabe worked as a consultant for DuPont in its defense against the EPA in its emerging PFOA controversy — a PFAS pollution scandal documented in the recent film Dark Waters.
Despite the unsavory connection, the Biden transition team has told The Intercept that McCabe has recused himself from matters involving the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — the law that would be used to regulate PFAS — and has committed to not taking any position within the Biden administration.
In a similarly concerning move, Biden this week appointed U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) to lead the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he is “expected to serve as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists.”
During his time in Congress, Richmond received more than $340,000 from donors in the oil and gas industry, making him one of the largest recipients of fossil fuel money in the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, Richmond has repeatedly bucked his own party when voting on major climate and environmental issues, often favoring oil interests.
It remains to be seen how a Biden administration will tackle some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the country. On paper, there is much the president-elect could do, and even more he has said he wants to do.
Time will tell.