Guest Contributors Clara Barnosky, Jane Sadler, Richard Yates, and Zachary Zimmerman: The Biden Administration’s First 100 Days of Reversing Environmental Rollbacks
An Early Analysis of Progress and Priorities in the Executive Branch
In the final months of the Trump presidency, we (a team of students working with U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE)) compiled a database of over 200 environmental rollbacks enacted during the Trump administration. These rollbacks characterized the administration’s aggressive focus on deregulation of industry and disregard of protections for the environment. After January 20, 2021, the work shifted as President Biden took office. The tracking began to focus on the new administration’s efforts in its first 100 days to reverse Trump’s environmental deregulations. Our analysis of those reversals led to the accompanying report which outlines the Biden administration’s environmental policy priorities and reversal progress through 100 days in office. Based on our analysis, we concluded that the Biden administration is on track to reinstate many of the environmental protections and policies that were stripped by the former administration.
To compile this data, we employed a daily, systematic approach covering the Federal Register, relevant agency websites and press releases, and relevant agency guidance portals. These sources were then supplemented with scans of secondary sources, such as reputable non-governmental organizations’ press releases and mainstream news sources. We also consulted with other trackers that had already begun similar work, namely the Harvard EELP Regulatory Rollbacks Tracker, NYU’s Midnight Watch Project, and the Columbia Sabin Center Climate Deregulation Tracker, each of which had been covering a different portion of the administration’s rollback record. The result was a comprehensive website tracking over 200 rollbacks across the entire executive branch together with assessments of policy impact, litigation status, and potential reversal options.
With President Biden’s election, our research shifted to focus on tracking the new administration’s reversals of the Trump-era rollbacks, as well as the actions that the administration took to advance a new environmental agenda, to evaluate President Biden’s sweeping promises of a new climate-focused agenda and the mechanics of regulation during a presidential transition. As President Biden has now passed his 100th day in office, we have developed a report of our data synthesizing the new administration’s reversals to date, offering a snapshot of where its priorities lie and how the regulatory paths taken by the prior administration shape the options facing the current one. Our report provides a broad overview and analysis of reversal actions taken by the administration, as well as a more detailed look at the four agencies that account for a majority of the actions. It also provides in-depth case studies on a few specific reversals that reflect broader trends on reversals within the new administration, and identifies potential areas where additional work is needed.
Our results show a promising start to the new administration’s efforts to reverse the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulation. Some of our key findings for the Biden administration’s first 100 days include:
- The administration has initiated action to address 120 of the 210 rollbacks (or 57 percent) included in this analysis. Of the 210 total rollbacks, 23 percent are under agency review, 22 percent have been fully reversed, 8 percent have been delayed or paused, 3 percent have a formal reversal or rule modification (which changes the final intent of the Trump Administration’s rule) in progress, and 2 percent have had a major new regulation proposed by the Biden administration. New proposed rules are likely to be the most important reversal category since they have a greater potential for lasting environmental impact and because they will be necessary to address most of the Trump administration’s most significant actions. However, this reversal type requires a lengthier process because of the notice-and-comment procedure. Despite the time-consuming process, EPA and NHTSA were already able to initiate rulemaking processes to reverse the SAFE Vehicle Rule Part One rollback, which would allow California to again seek a waiver to set more restrictive vehicle emissions standards (and a dozen other states to adopt those standards). In addition, as of this writing, Congress is poised to use a Congressional Review Act resolution (which President Biden is expected to sign) to reverse an oil and gas industry methane emissions rollback by the Trump administration, a rarely employed but potent legal technique to fully reverse regulations finalized at the end of a prior administration.
- The administration has primarily targeted high-impact actions for reversal, starting the reversal progress for 78 percent of actions in the highest impact category (based on the four-point assessment system the rollbacks team developed to track climate, environmental, human health, and programmatic impacts). In comparison, only about 47 percent of actions in the lowest impact category have begun the reversal progress.
- The administration has also initiated a number of new actions which place emphasis on protecting the climate and the environment. These range from agency-specific actions—such as DOI establishing a Climate Task Force to ensure climate change is considered in governmental decision-making, increased access to information, and greater participation for environmental justice and Tribal groups—to wide-sweeping executive actions, such as President Biden’s executive order directing a whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis and his newly announced infrastructure plan.
- We observed comparable progress between reversing “difficult” and “easy” actions, despite the latter actions requiring fewer resources and time in comparison to more complex rollbacks. For example, President Biden has completely revoked some, but not all, of the Trump-era executive orders on environmental policy—an action we generally classified as “easy”—indicating that although these remaining orders qualified as policy rollbacks, the new administration may not view them as high-priority, or may still be developing strategies for partial revocations. The Biden administration instituted reversals on 62 percent of those rollbacks we classified as easy, in comparison to the 55 percent of those we classified as difficult.
Overall, our analysis indicates that the Biden administration is prioritizing the effort to undo the damage of the Trump years. One hundred days is a particularly short time frame from the perspective of agency rulemaking—in most cases it will take many months for EPA, DOE, and others to develop their initial proposals, and many more to finalize and defend them in court—but the administration has initiated the reconsideration and reversal process for a number of high-priority items. While there are still many questions surrounding President Biden’s willingness and ability to meet the breadth and scale required to address the global environmental and climate crises, his holistic approach, rhetoric, and first 100 days are an encouraging start for those concerned with preserving our environment and climate for future generations.
You can download our report here.
Clara Barnosky ‘22 and Richard Yates ‘22 are J.D. candidates at U.C. Berkeley School of Law. Jane Sadler ‘22 and Zachary Zimmerman ‘22 are M.P.P. candidates at the U.C. Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. The authors would like to thank Ted Lamm and Narayan Subramanian for their guidance on the rollbacks tracking project and report.