Biden looks to cement green legacy

By Robin Bravender | 04/17/2024 01:29 PM EDT

Major climate and conservation announcements are expected in the coming weeks. 

President Joe Biden gestures during a campaign event in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

President Joe Biden gestures at a campaign event Tuesday in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Matt Rourke/AP

President Joe Biden is waging an administrationwide campaign to shore up his climate and conservation record with just seven months to go until the presidential election and a major regulatory deadline looming.

Huge environmental moves are flooding out from the administration — with more on the horizon — as Earth Day approaches and as agencies face a deadline for insulating rules against potential Trump administration rollbacks and as the president looks to use his executive authority to protect public lands.

In the coming weeks, Biden is expected to expand national monuments in California, release a long-awaited rule to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, finalize a hot-button regulation aimed at boosting conservation of public lands and finish unraveling Trump-era changes to the nation’s bedrock environmental law.


Those are just some of the major policies coming down the pike as Biden’s agencies face a looming deadline to wrap up rules to ensure they won’t be vulnerable under the Congressional Review Act, which gives lawmakers a window to veto government regulations. That deadline could be as early as this spring, but the date won’t be known until Congress wraps up its work this year, so officials are scrambling to push regulations out the door quickly.

An election-year push on climate and conservation could help solidify Biden’s legacy in the event that former President Donald Trump returns to the White House next year. Biden’s allies hope major environmental announcements will also excite voters — including young people who helped put the president in office the first time — and could help the president keep his job next year.

Environmental issues are personal for the president, who regularly touts his work on climate, notably his enactment of the biggest climate law in U.S. history. Biden refers to the nation’s “natural wonders” as the “envy of the world” and “central to our identity as a nation.”

“He does really care about these issues,” David Hayes, a former Biden White House aide, said of the president.

Hayes pointed to Biden’s reaction early in his term after a federal judge in Louisiana reversed the administration’s move to pause oil and gas leasing on public lands. Biden’s personal reaction was, “’We’re going to fight that,’” Hayes said. “The president said, ‘We’re not going to do new leasing until we figure out how to do this better.’”

Environmental advocates are expecting to see an array of green policies rolled out by the Biden administration, potentially as part of a broader conservation messaging campaign tied to Earth Day on April 22.

The White House told allies to expect conservation and climate events every day next week, including plans for a Biden speech Monday in Virginia and power plant announcements Thursday, according to a person informed about its plans who was granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the schedule.

The White House declined to comment on its plans for Earth Day.

‘A moment of culmination’

Since taking office, Biden has used the annual celebration to highlight his record on climate and conservation.

In 2021, the president made an Earth Day pledge to advance “the most ambitious climate agenda in our nation’s history.” The president traveled to Seattle on Earth Day in 2022, when — still facing a congressional stalemate on climate legislation — he signed an executive order directing the government to conduct a survey of the nation’s oldest trees on federal lands. And the president’s Earth Day moves last year included an executive order aimed at ensuring that disadvantaged communities don’t bear the brunt of pollution.

This feels “like a moment of culmination” for Biden’s conservation agenda, said Drew McConville, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “It’s a combination of years of public input and work to deliver on the commitment the president made in that first week in office.”

That was when the president laid out a target to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land and 30 percent of U.S. oceans by 2030.

Tallying the administration’s progress toward that goal is complicated, McConville said, and depends on what you count. On the lands front, “there’s no question” that the Biden administration is “overseeing record, historic levels of conservation investments,” he said.

“We still need quite a bit of work to reach 30 percent,” he added, but “the exciting thing is, we’re seeing progress.”

The White House touted Biden’s conservation record on social media Wednesday. “Our Administration has protected more than 26 million acres of lands and waters so far — putting President Biden on track to conserve more lands and waters than any President in history,” the administration posted on the social media website X.

John Podesta, a top Biden climate and energy aide who has held White House jobs in the last three Democratic administrations, said last week that Biden is surpassing former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — both of whom had “tremendous conservation records” — in terms of conservation during his first term.

Monumental expectations

Podesta signaled there’s more to come soon on the conservation front.

One expected announcement is an expansion of California national monuments designated by Obama when Biden was vice president.

Such a move would help Biden to shore up his legacy as a conservation champion, said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who’s been one of the key players in Congress pushing for the expansion.

“I am very hopeful. All the signs are pointing towards success,” Chu said Tuesday in a brief interview on Capitol Hill. Expanding those California monuments would help the president to fulfill that 30 percent by 2030 pledge, Chu said. It would mark a “dramatic increase in the amount of protected federal lands and I’m so glad to see it,” she said. Biden “is definitely committed to being a conservation leader.”

Conservation advocates gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to call for a slew of new monuments from Biden as he eyes additional public lands conservation moves this year.

Using his executive power to designate monuments could bolster Biden’s green legacy and potentially win him some goodwill from the public during a pivotal election year.

“Monuments have incredible amounts of support among the American people,” said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Conservation “is not a partisan issue for most people,” although sometimes presidents see conflicts over protecting lands and “aren’t sure of what kind of public support they will get and we have to spend time convincing them,” Brengel said.

“We didn’t have to do that with Biden,” she said. “Biden walked in, he knew he wanted to protect more public lands. He had an agenda coming into office that was very, very clear. And he came in and did it with gusto.”

Biden so far has created five new national monuments since taking office, outpacing the one monument designated by former President Donald Trump. Obama — with 29 designations — tops the list of presidents who created the most national monuments, according to data tallied by the NPCA.

But only four of those were designated during Obama’s first term. Clinton, who created 19 new monuments while in office, created just one of those in his first term.

GOP opposition

Congressional Republicans and Trump are eager to slash Biden’s policies on lands and climate.

Trump has slammed Biden’s energy policies and has pledged to “unleash the production of domestic energy resources” if he returns to office.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, slammed Biden’s record, calling the president’s conservation legacy “virtually nonexistent” in a statement to E&E News.

“No president has a worse record on public lands,” Westerman said. The president’s “efforts to limit energy development” and “create undefined and unattainable goals like the 30X30 initiative” are “irresponsible and fail to accomplish our most basic goals for land management,” Westerman said.

Environmentalists blame Republicans for limiting Biden’s work so far on climate and conservation, and they hope the president will use the coming months to roll out durable policies.

Biden’s environmental record has been shaped by the fact that he’s had “an incredibly divided” Senate for his entire presidency and faces a “hostile Supreme Court,” said Brett Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.

“The president has done a decent job of moving things forward with the hand that he was dealt,” Hartl said.

There’s “a lot of good stuff in the pipeline” expected soon from the administration, Hartl said. “We want as much of it to be as strong as possible.”