The Biden Administration Is Fulfilling Its Conservation Promises in the First 100 Days
With the passage of a massive economic rescue bill, more than 200 million vaccines distributed, a historically diverse Cabinet in place, and a pledge to cut carbon emissions upward of 50 percent, it’s clear that the Biden administration has wasted no time during its first 100 days. As part of its effort to take a whole-of-government approach to solving the overlapping health, economic, racial justice, and climate crises, the administration has also been rapidly fulfilling its conservation commitments to the American public.
Primarily via the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), President Joe Biden has made strides in ambitiously conserving land and water, prioritizing tribal consultation, combating climate change, listening to scientists, and making the transition to clean energy. These bold investments in the conservation and restoration of America’s natural areas can create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the outdoors and stimulate rural and urban economies. This column summarizes the conservation accomplishments made in the first 100 days of the Biden administration.
During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to increase the country’s ambition on conservation through a commitment to conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands, waters, and ocean by 2030, a goal also known as 30×30. In his first week in office, President Biden made the 30×30 goal a reality to help slow the loss of nature, ameliorate the impacts of climate change, and ensure all Americans have access to the natural world. The January order on 30×30 recognizes the important role that America’s agricultural and forest landowners, hunters, fishermen, tribes, states, territories, and local officials play in conserving and restoring nature, and directs federal agencies to engage with them to determine how best to pursue 30×30.
The federal government’s conservation achievements have historically failed to meet its obligation of supporting tribes in pursuing a conservation vision of their choosing, including protecting sacred sites, ensuring access to culturally significant resources, and achieving the benefits of traditional ecological knowledge. President Biden campaigned on prioritizing the nation-to-nation relationship and recognizing that tribes are key sovereign partners in conservation.
In his first week in office, President Biden issued a memorandum on prioritizing tribal consultation and strengthening nation-to-nation relationships. Shortly after, the DOI announced a series of initial consultations with tribes aimed at ensuring that policies related to addressing the converging crises of COVID-19, economic security, racial justice, and climate change take into account tribal nations’ priorities and recommendations. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice resumed and convened a meeting of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. The DOI also established a joint commission with the U.S. Department of Justice to reduce violent crime against American Indians and Alaska Natives and reinstated the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, which acknowledges the importance of local Indigenous knowledge.
On April 16, Secretary Haaland issued a series of secretarial orders (SOs) aimed at jump-starting the department’s work on climate change in earnest and centering the DOI as a climate agency. One of the orders created a Climate Task Force at the agency to develop a climate action strategy and accelerate renewable energy development on public lands. It also clarified use of the National Environmental Policy Act to increase the role of tribal consultation and public engagement in project development and require consideration of greenhouse gas estimates in project development. The other SO revoked more than 10 Trump administration orders that promoted fossil fuels and were “inconsistent with the Department’s commitment to protect public health; conserve land, water, and wildlife; and elevate science.”
Advancing offshore wind
The Biden administration has taken a governmentwide approach to wind energy and has set a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, creating nearly 80,000 new offshore wind jobs and 57,000 new jobs in communities supported by offshore wind activity in the process. The DOI has already announced that it finalized a new wind energy area off the coasts of New York and New Jersey and is initiating an environmental review of the third-ever commercial-scale offshore wind project.
Oil and gas reform
The federal oil and gas program is responsible for 25 percent of the country’s climate emissions. As part of his executive order on climate, President Biden placed a pause on new federal leasing and ordered a review of the program. The program—which the Government Accountability Office considers “high risk”—has not been updated in decades and is full of loopholes, subsidies, and a lack of competitive bidding, which causes taxpayers and states to lose out on billions of dollars while prioritizing corporate profits. Despite misinformation from oil industry representatives, the action is not a ban on drilling. In fact, drillers are currently sitting on more than 13 million acres of already leased public land and nearly 10,000 approved but unused drilling permits—enough to last them for at least the next 10 years without any new leases. The DOI has followed through on the president’s pause, canceling second-quarter lease sales while the review is ongoing. Alongside this announcement, President Biden has also called for a $16 billion investment to employ energy workers to plug orphan oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines.
As part of the oil and gas review, the DOI held a public forum that included remarks from Secretary Haaland, followed by groups of Indigenous, industry, conservation, labor, equity, and academic experts. The forum, as well as a public comment period, will help inform an interim report with findings and recommendations on reforming the federal oil and gas program which the department is expected to publish this summer.
Stopped oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge
On day one in office, President Biden halted all oil and gas activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In a series of corner-cutting moves, former President Donald Trump forced a lease sale in the Refuge and issued leases just days before Biden took office, putting wildlife at risk, ignoring Indigenous communities, and stifling public comment. It is up to Congress, however, to fully restore protections to the Arctic Refuge.
Restoring national monuments
Also in a day-one EO, President Biden prompted a review of three national monuments—Bears Ears, Grand-Staircase Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts—whose protections had been revoked and boundaries changed under the Trump administration. As part of this review, Secretary Haaland visited Utah to meet with elected officials, tribal leaders, and other stakeholders of the two monuments in that state. A report on the potential restoration of these monuments is expected to be sent to the president soon.
Revoking Trump administration actions
Much of the DOI’s work to date has consisted of proactive measures to achieve Biden’s campaign promises, but part of those achievements include overturning harmful Trump-era rules and regulations. In February, for example, the DOI strengthened a popular conservation funding program by rescinding Trump administration policies that had imposed restrictions on new land and water acquisitions and on a grant program dedicated to providing recreational opportunities in underserved urban areas. In early March, the DOI restored protections for migratory birds by withdrawing a Trump-era legal opinion that had allowed industry to kill birds with impunity. To strengthen scientific integrity, the department revoked orders that had restricted the type of data that could be considered in the department’s policymaking. Most recently, the department took steps to empower tribal governments and restore tribal homelands by reversing Trump administration policies.
President Biden ran on a whole-of-government approach to solving the country’s most pressing challenges, and the White House and DOI have made haste in achieving progress on increasing conservation ambition, addressing climate change, creating jobs, and strengthening tribal consultation in the first 100 days. With a football field of natural area being lost to development every 30 seconds—and the impacts of nature loss falling disproportionately on communities of color—this kind of momentum is exactly what is needed to ensure a healthier, better, more equitable future.
Jenny Rowland-Shea is the deputy director for public lands at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Tricia Woodcome, Sahir Doshi, Miriam Goldstein, Ali Carter, and Mark Haggerty for their contributions to this column.
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Deputy Director, Public Lands