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What President-Elect Biden Could Mean for the Climate and Chesapeake Bay

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

After a presidential campaign that gave historic prominence to climate change and a debate over the future of the oil industry, Democrat Joe Biden’s victory – even in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the oil industry – could have been a cause for jubilation by environmentalists.

But hold the champagne. Green dreams about the Biden Administration have been sobered by the reality that Republicans appear likely to retain control of the U.S. Senate – pending special elections in Georgia on January 5.  A continued Republican majority would likely block any sweeping climate legislation along the lines of the Green New Deal, which seeks to create millions of jobs through investments in clean energy.

“The fact that Mitch McConnell (the Senate Majority Leader) is there now and could possibly be there next year clearly will make it more difficult to pass important initiatives,” said U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democrat. “That said, No. 1, we hope to win the two Georgia Senate Seats.  Number 2, I know that a President Biden is going to work hard to push through this climate agenda in Congress, no matter what.”  


Greg Wilson, a leader of the Baltimore Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy group that has been pushing for the Green New Deal said, “it’s a big disappointment,” of the failure so far of Democrats to capture the Senate.  “But you know, I think environmentalists are used to disappointment, and we know what we have to do, moving forward.”

Even without control of the Senate, President Elect Biden could have a major impact on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency simply by replacing Trump’s administrator – Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist – with someone willing to impose regulations and fine polluters.

Mike Tidwell is founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. 

“A Biden EPA – I mean, it’s night and day compared to Trump,” Tidwell said. “You are just going to see a lot of these damaging environmental policies be reversed, so that clean car standards are actually adhered to, for example.  And so we stop giving subsidies to fossil fuels.  You can do that by not allowing drilling on public lands.”

This is all assuming that Trump eventually does leave the White House – which, so far, he has been refusing to do, except to golf and Tweet conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

If he does move permanently to Mar-A-Lago, he will leave behind a new 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. This will make it harder for Biden’s EPA to impose new regulations to repair holes left by Trump’s weakening of almost 100 pollution control rules. Industry will likely sue if the regulations are reinstated, and may find a receptive ear in the three justices appointed by Trump (Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.)

In terms of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, the Trump EPA failed to crack down on Pennsylvania for dumping on its downstream neighbors. This triggered a lawsuit against EPA by Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. 

New Biden-appointed leadership at the EPA could put more pressure on Pennsylvania to impose rules on its farmers to keep their manure and fertilizer out of streams.

However, it is worth noting that the last time a Democrat was in the White House, the Obama/Biden EPA was equally unwilling to impose any serious penalties on Pennsylvania, even though it was also obvious back then that the state was falling down on its Bay cleanup obligations.

Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland said he and colleagues are committed to pressuring the Biden EPA harder this time around because a deadline in EPA’s Bay cleanup plan is now looming in the year 2025.

“Members who care about the Chesapeake Bay – we’re going to be speaking with one voice, pushing on the Biden Administration to make a clean break from the policies of this Trump Administration,” Sarbanes said.  “And even to make a break from the kind of, you know, lesser action we saw previous to that when it comes to Chesapeake Bay programs.”

Time will tell how hard a Biden EPA will actually push a state – Pennsylvania -- that last week delivered to Biden the critical votes for his victory.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.  The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at [email protected]

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.