Super-Heated Year Ahead on Energy & Environment News

January 27, 2021

Analysis: Super-Heated Year Ahead on Energy & Environment News


EDITOR'S NOTE: This analysis from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis provides an overview of our series of special reports that look ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2021 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report and check out the numerous SEJournal TipSheets, Issue Backgrounders and WatchDog columns linked below, for more.

Biden at his inauguration in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. Photo: Defense Department. Click to enlarge.

The year 2021 will be so full of news that environmental journalists will have to put in overtime to cover it. The climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and rollbacks of Trump rollbacks will be center stage. Things are getting hotter. On so many levels.

One reason is the rollout of a huge array of new initiatives by the new administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Their party, the Democrats, now have control not only of the White House but the House and Senate as well. But their legislative margins are thin, and as much news may come from executive actions and court decisions as from ambitious legislation.

As critical as the climate crisis is, the year ahead may focus even more media attention on the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has killed more than 400,000 Americans. Yet the Biden program to “build back better” after the economic wreckage of the virus may turn out to accomplish many goals of the much-noted “Green New Deal.”


Biden-Harris initiatives will set huge agenda

On his first day in office, Jan. 20, Biden signed 17 executive orders (may require subscription) — many of them related to the environment and energy. 

One, for example, moved the United States back into the Paris Agreement on climate, which President Trump had dropped out of. Another killed the Keystone XL pipeline, meant to move oil from tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas. 

Because some of the orders were actually collections of rollbacks (or plans for them), they amounted to scores of de-Trumpification plans. And more are coming.

During his four years in the White House, Trump rolled back, weakened or killed more than 100 important regulations on environment and energy, many with direct impact on climate change or environmental health. Only a fraction of these succeeded, with many of the rest still tied up in court.

Not only are there trackers for the Trump environmental rollbacks (thanks, New York Times), but there are now trackers for the Biden rollbacks of the Trump actions (thanks, Washington Post). You will need them. There are many, and they are changing all the time.

Few of these actions happen just with the stroke of a pen. In many cases, new rulemaking will be required. Formal rulemaking, because of procedural requirements, can take years. And that is just before the court challenges begin, which can take years more. Many of the Trump rollbacks are still in court as the Biden administration begins. 


The Biden administration is facing years 

of work simply to undo all the deregulation 

Trump’s agencies did over four years.


The key point is that the Biden administration is facing years of work (may require subscription) simply to undo all the deregulation Trump’s agencies did over four years.

There are a lot of urgent environmental issues, and we can expect the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress to take most of them on: for example, toxic pollution, natural resource conservation, environmental justice and the vast ocean. 

But we already know (because Biden has said so) that climate change, adaptation to its destructive consequences, and global efforts to confront it, will be the top priority.


Issues to watch in the year ahead

Here are some of the key energy and environment concerns SEJournal’s “2021 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” has been reporting on in recent months:


CLIMATE MANDATE: The Biden administration has already made clear that the climate crisis will be an all-of-government issue. It will involve a lot more than just the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulating powerplant CO2 emissions. It will mean the Interior Department limiting drilling. Federal housing agencies changing heating and insulation. The Transportation Department reducing vehicle emissions. The Agriculture Department increasing soil storage of carbon. And the State Department bolstering the Paris accord. And a lot more. Biden’s climate effort will be run from the White House, not any individual agency. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will be quarterbacking and coordinating the efforts of all.

Read more on how climate change policy is likely to permeate the executive branch under Biden.


EXECUTIVE POWERS: Face it. Not only is the Democratic margin in the Senate as thin as a hair, but a key committee chairmanship (Joe Manchin at Senate Energy) is held by a coal-state (albeit Democratic) senator. This is not the power you need for a heavy lift on climate legislation. Nonetheless, Biden will probably try a big climate bill. So it’s important for journalists to remember how much a president could do on climate with executive power alone. That means reversing two rule rollbacks aimed at controlling methane emissions, reversing Trump’s rollback of auto emission standards and reversing his gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act rule, among many others.

Read more on how even without the Senate, Biden can still do much to fight climate change.


DEREG ROLL BACK: Republicans in years past have dramatized a slick narrative of “midnight regulations” by several outgoing Democratic administrations. Yet the Trump anti-regulatory agencies went into overdrive in a frenzy of last-minute rollbacks, weakenings and deregulations in their final months, days and hours. Journalists wrote about it, but could barely keep up. So ProPublica launched a midnight deregulation tracker. Whether or not last year’s deregulations win headlines in 2021, the Biden administration has taken full notice and worked them into its game plan for 2021. Biden’s executive orders have frozen virtually all of the late-breaking de-regs. And he has plans to go through them and undo them. Biden and the Democrats have another, not-so-secret weapon for undoing Trump’s late rollbacks. It’s called the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to veto a regulation for a fixed period after it is issued. It only works when the party hostile to a particular rulemaking controls the House, Senate and White House. Now the Dems do. Republicans in early 2017 used this method to veto about a dozen late-breaking Obama rules. Democrats learned the hard way (from GOPers) how to do it.

Read more on how the Trump Administration ends with midnight deregulation and how the Dems could borrow from the GOP playbook to roll back Trump rules.


PUSH PAST PARIS: There are many international eco-agreements, but the most important on the environment beat is still the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Trump, a climate denier financially sponsored by the fossil fuel industries, pulled out of the pact the United States had done so much to engineer, making us the only nation among 195 to do so. After five years, the Paris pact has not been reducing emissions enough to head off disaster. As “climate envoy,” Biden appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry (who had done a lot to forge the original treaty). Kerry’s job will be to help persuade the signatory states to increase the “ambition” of their voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There will be lots of other challenges in getting the treaty back on track. The next big meeting among the nations in the Paris treaty is scheduled to begin Nov. 1 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Read more on how Paris is only one of the treaties the United States will engage with.


RISING RENEWABLES: Here’s some good news: The “energy transition” will continue. For years now, the more expensive and carbon-intensive fuels for electric generation (especially coal and oil) have been supplanted by cleaner and more renewable energy sources including solar photovoltaic and wind. Of course, many plants replace coal with gas, which is cheaper. Gas (methane) not only emits CO2 when it burns, but is itself a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane leaks and flares worsen climate change. The petroleum industry would rather have you ignore that. This happens mostly because of market forces. Renewables are becoming less expensive. But the energy markets are not truly free. All kinds of R&D investments, subsidies, tax breaks and regulatory fixes affect the outcome. So there is still a key role for the government in slowing or speeding the energy transition.

Read more on how the transition from fossil energy to renewables will continue in 2021.


COAL CONSTANT: Coal production and use in the United States will continue to fall in 2021. Coal’s decline has been less about politics and Trump’s “war on coal,” than about price competition from fracked natural (fossil) gas. Worldwide, though, demand for coal continues. China, once seen as a climate hero, has continued to develop coal and coal-based electricity, and consumption globally is expected to continue, despite worries over warming. 

Read more on how climate-unfriendly coal may be losing ground in the United States, but not worldwide.


CAR CROSSOVER: Vehicles of all kinds are responsible for a major fraction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The four years of the Trump administration were marked by an epic battle to weaken the climate-friendly Obama auto emission standards. Even though Trump succeeded in gutting the standards, he lost: His new rule is tied up in court and Biden can undo it, however long that takes. And most importantly, the auto industry seems to have envisioned an alternate future. Many car companies have abandoned the old coalition that fought for the Trump rule and against cleaner California rules. Instead, they are preparing for a future where electric cars are big. The nice thing about electric cars is that they can be powered through climate-friendly solar and wind energy via the grid. In 2020 the entire inventory of the electric Hummer sold out before it was even produced.

Read more on how carmakers are mapping out a shifting road ahead.


TRACKING COURTS: The newly formed conservative majority on the Supreme Court, fortified by three Trump appointments, may not be so friendly to the environment, at least for those cases that do reach the high court. But many cases will be settled as well in lower federal courts and state courts. The potential for lots of environmental news is there. An example is the blockbuster decision Jan. 19 (may require subscription) throwing out the Trump power plant rule that replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Environmental journalists will need to watch the courts not only for results of cases started during the Trump era, but also for the many environmental cases to come.

Read more on how the conservative high court is to consider upcoming environment cases and how other courts will also be a big battleground for regulatory contests in 2021.


PANDEMIC LINK: The COVID-19 pandemic, which made huge news throughout 2020, and which is far from over, was a reminder of all the weaknesses that exist in the U.S. public health infrastructure. Much work (and news) lies ahead on rebuilding and improving that system. One among many environment stories may lie in the origin of the virus. Zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases and vector-borne (mosquitos causing malaria) diseases are concerns worthy of more attention from environmental journalists in 2021.  

Read more on how public health infrastructure is emerging as a critical environment story.


JUSTICE RISING: It took the Flint water crisis starting in 2014 to raise the level of news media attention to environmental justice (or rather, injustice). But, sadly, stories like this are everywhere; there are Flint-like water systems in poor communities across the United States. Other examples abound of environment threats like chemical plants and waste disposal sites near communities lacking the power to resist them. Environmental justice stories will make more news in 2021 because many newsrooms and journalists have become more aware of them. They have been waiting for years for media attention.  

Read more on how environmental justice stories will keep proliferating in 2021.


THE BIDEN TEAM: During the initial weeks of the transition, the Biden team has revealed most of the top-level nominees it wants to put in positions of environmental importance. There are a lot of them, and many have been news stories in and of themselves. It’s hard to generalize — but just look at Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), whom Biden has picked for Interior secretary. Haaland is a Native American, the first-ever in the cabinet, and is expected to head an agency that has overseen the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the time it has done many injustices to Natives. Watch this space: Biden nominees are likely to make news with aggressive actions on climate and environmental justice, among other issues.

Read more on how Biden nominees foretell aggressive action on climate, environmental justice.


OPEN GOVERNMENT: The Trump administration was not a good time for the free press. Especially during 2020, when reporters covering protests of racial injustice were assaulted frequently by police. Trump incited violence against news media by calling them “enemies of the people.” The Biden administration seems to be re-establishing civil relations with the media. But the Society of Environmental Journalists and other journalism organizations will be watching carefully, and calling for more open government.

Read more on how the Biden presidency may represent a new era of open government.

For more, visit the full “2021 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: