Pennsylvania environmental groups are optimistic of rolling back former President Donald Trump policy changes in the new Biden administration.
Organizations like PennEnvironment, PennFuture and Conservation Voters of PA praised executive orders by President Joe Biden last week while pointing to more policy changes they want to see sooner rather than later.
Biden’s Day 1 executive orders last week included rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and blocking a permit for the Keystone XL.
He also aims to reduce harmful emissions from cars, trucks and SUVs. Oil and gas operations are being scrutinized as well — from how companies extract resources from the ground to the safety of pipelines that distribute the fuels. The new president hopes to transition the country to 100% renewable energy for electricity generation by 2035 and net-zero emissions in the overall economy by 2050.
"We are encouraged by President Biden’s prioritization of rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and revoking permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, two issues that activists brought to the forefront of the national environmental conversation,” Donna Kohut, an Upper Bucks County spokeswoman for Conservation Voters, said this week.
“These actions are both necessary and heartening, and just the first steps in a long journey towards the carbon reductions required to combat climate change,” Kohut added.
Stephanie Wein, of PennEnvironment, said some of the most impactful changes for Pennsylvanians from Biden’s office could come through clean water, renewable energy and air quality rule changes.
The Trump administration put into place an environmental policy rule under the federal Clean Waters Act that “streamlined” the categories for waterways given special protective status.
The Navigable Waters Protection Rule put in place April 21, 2020 was dubbed the “Dirty Water Rule” by environmental groups for removing small streams and headwaters that were previously protected under the act during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Wein said the 2020 rule left many of Pennsylvania’s 50,000 miles of streams — already considered impaired — at risk of polluting drinking water sources and main watersheds.
“You can’t not protect the Delaware River headwaters and expect the Delaware to be protected. You have to protect the small streams that feed it, not just the main stem,” Wein said Monday.
While critics of Biden’s move to block the 1,700-mile Keystone pipeline as a job killer during an economic crisis, Wein said a national shift from fossil fuels could bring many new jobs to the commonwealth.
The pipeline was to carry oil from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, and Keystone XL began shutting down construction, and the company said it would eliminate more than 1,000 jobs in coming weeks.
“The fact that the tide is turning on fossil fuels in Pennsylvania, I think, is sort of indicative of where we need to go as a country,” Wein added.
A 2020 report on clean energy jobs for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection states jobs in clean energy grew by 8.7% in the past two years.
The commonwealth, described by Wein as a historically fossil fuels state, had about 97,000 clean energy workers in 2019 — about 5,259 of those jobs were in Bucks County.
Those jobs include a wide variety of positions, from construction workers to chief executives, and starting pay from $10 an hour to upwards of $50 an hour.
“I think that the scale of work that needs to be done to shift our economy from a carbon one to a clean energy one is going to put a lot of people to work,” Wein said.
While executive orders could shift national environmental policy now, an executive order is really only as secure as the administration in power.
Biden recently stated a goal to rollback 100 water and air rules, including the navigable waters rule, but an act of Congress could prevent the next head of state from rolling back Biden’s changes.
For groups like PennEnvironment and Conservation Voters, that means pushing for laws against single-use plastics, clean air protections and expanding solar and wind power to congress and in Harrisburg in the coming years.
While many experts agree that Biden’s actions could help the nation achieve ambitious climate goals and further enhance the renewable energy sector, driving job growth, others say they worry more that stricter regulations could hurt companies struggling to recover from the pandemic, which decimated demand for fuel.