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Daily News Blog

05
Feb

Biden Executive Orders Set the Stage for Systemic Change, If Words Turn to Action

(Beyond Pesticides, February 5, 2021) The American public has witnessed, in the barely launched tenure of President Joe Biden, a surge of Executive Orders (EOs). Based on the first flurry of orders, much of the Biden “reset” appears gauged to beat back Trump policies that worsened an already inadequate regulatory system, and to reconfigure federal operations and regulations so as to address and solve the biggest threats (beyond COVID) the country faces. Among the high-profile EOs already issued are three that stand out. One recalibrates the operations of the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) to forward health, racial equity, and environmental stewardship. A second and third seek, respectively, to restore scientific integrity and elevate the role of science across the federal government, and to tackle comprehensively the climate crisis with a “whole of government” approach. Beyond Pesticides welcomes these early efforts, and maintains that vigilance and robust advocacy will be necessary to achieve needed paradigmatic change across federal agencies, which exist to protect and support the American people.

EOs are tools the President can wield to manage directly some operations of the federal government. They are seen as muscular and immediate means through which to change course, particularly in the early stage of a new administration; the “check” on EOs is that they can generally be reversed by the next President. Policies are more durable when they emanate from legislation, but EOs can be an important way to undo bad practices relatively immediately, and to signal changed priorities and intentions to federal agencies (which are housed in the Executive Branch), Congress, and the public.

President Biden’s Executive Orders, to date, have all contained strong signals of his priorities (beyond dealing with the COVID crisis): addressing racial inequity, the climate crisis, scientific integrity, and economic retooling for a greener, more-sustainable economy that changes lives. Notably, a different and defining feature of the Biden administration is its promotion and understanding of climate change as both a national security and a foreign policy priority.

The Executive Order on the OMB — “Modernizing Regulatory Review” — has significant potential to shift the cultures and actions of federal agencies. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within OMB has, for decades, reviewed significant Executive Branch regulatory actions. The Trump (and other) administrations have advantaged industry interests through these reviews, ensuring that their economic interests often prevail over protection of public health and the environment. Reviews have been conducted so as to block regulation because of presumed “economic dislocation” (impacts such as job losses through plant shutdowns, layoffs, and other industry responses to regulation). Business interests have lobbied for, endorsed, and enjoyed the benefits.

Examples of this include EPA’s nonsensical avoidance of regulating nanotechnology, and industry pushback enabled by USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture) when the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) has attempted to “delist” certain unacceptable synthetic materials (for use in organic agriculture) from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Beyond Pesticides maintains that the Biden revamp of OMB reviews must lead to the challenging of economic “status quo” regulations, and support at EPA, for example, for pesticide alternatives that can deliver their own significant and sustainable economic, health, and environmental benefits. Organic production methods, of course, top that list.

“The EO, if it is to be implemented in the spirit that is intended, requires that all federal agencies, with specific focus on EPA, USDA, DOI (Department of Interior), and FDA, conduct a full assessment of actions that they can take immediately to eliminate or reduce the current harms being inflicted that are not justifiable given the availability of organic (as defined in federal law) alternatives,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.

The language of the new OMB order acknowledges that the country “faces serious challenges, including a massive global pandemic; a major economic downturn; systemic racial inequality; and the undeniable reality and accelerating threat of climate change. . . . It is the policy of my Administration to mobilize the power of the Federal Government to rebuild our Nation and address these and other challenges.” The EO then directs the Director of OMB to produce a set of recommendations to modernize and improve its regulatory review process and make concrete suggestions “on how the regulatory review process can promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations. The recommendations should also include proposals that would ensure that regulatory review serves as a tool to affirmatively promote regulations that advance these values. These recommendations should be informed by public engagement with relevant stakeholders.”

This EO includes provisions to “ensure that the review process promotes policies that reflect new developments in scientific and economic understanding, fully accounts for regulatory benefits that are difficult or impossible to quantify, and does not have harmful anti-regulatory or deregulatory effects. . . . [and] “ensure that regulatory initiatives appropriately benefit and do not inappropriately burden disadvantaged, vulnerable, or marginalized communities.”

The EO on scientific integrity — “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking” — has the potential to remake culture and priorities at many federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Energy, Education, and Interior; the Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Federal Communications Commission, National Transportation Safety Board; and a host of others, including national security entities.

The order begins with: “It is the policy of my Administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data. Scientific and technological information, data, and evidence are central to the development and iterative improvement of sound policies, and to the delivery of equitable programs, across every area of government. Scientific findings should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations. . . . Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists or other scientists who support the work of the Federal Government and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the Nation, contributes to systemic inequities and injustices, and violates the trust that the public places in government to best serve its collective interests.”

The order also creates an interagency Task Force on Scientific Integrity charged with reviewing the effectiveness of agency scientific-integrity policies, including specific attention to any improper political interference in research and data gathering, or suppression or distortion of scientific information. The Task Force must also consider whether the independence of communication of scientific information is protected, and whether agency support of researchers and scientists, and delivery of federal programming, are equitable. Beyond review, there are also many action steps identified in the order. Beyond Pesticides has pointed to the corruption of scientific integrity again and again. Given the prior administration’s corrupt conduct, the charge of this task force represents a massive set of tasks.

Relatedly, in late January, a federal judge paused the Trump EPA’s 11th-hour and misleadingly named “secret science” rule, which would have limited the kinds of research that could be used by the agency in developing regulatory rules. The rule, which was made final without a required 30-day notice, was deemed by Montana federal district judge Brian Morris to have been unlawfully rushed by EPA; he called the finalization of the rule so close to the inauguration “arbitrary” and “capricious.” The Biden administration will need to act on this pending rule soon; given the EO on scientific integrity, it is unlikely to survive review intact.

A third, high visibility EO — one of many recently announced initiatives on climate — is the “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” Its language checks a lot of boxes: “It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

The EO directs all Executive Branch departments to “immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.” It directs federal agency attention for revised rulemaking to, especially: methane reduction in the fossil fuel sector, ambitious fuel economy standards in transportation, energy efficiency in buildings and appliances, and air pollution from fossil-fuel powered electricity generation. Agency heads must forward any new proposed or amended rules not only to OMB, as is customary, but also, to the National Climate Advisor (Gina McCarthy, currently). In this EO, a line jumps out as emblematic of the turn this administration represents away from the pro-industry loyalty of the last: “In carrying out the actions directed in this section, heads of agencies shall seek input from the public and stakeholders, including State local, Tribal, and territorial officials, scientists, labor unions, environmental advocates, and environmental justice organizations.”

A shift from the Trump administration’s antipathy and an important step in using true cost accounting shines through in this language in the EO: “It is essential that agencies capture the full costs of greenhouse gas emissions as accurately as possible, including by taking global damages into account. . . . The ‘social cost of carbon’ (SCC), ‘social cost of nitrous oxide’ (SCN), and ‘social cost of methane’ (SCM) are estimates of the monetized damages associated with incremental increases in greenhouse gas emissions. They are intended to include changes in net agricultural productivity, human health, property damage from increased flood risk, and the value of ecosystem services. An accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.”

The EO further establishes a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council “to prioritize environmental justice and ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices.” It is also this EO that revokes the permit for the notorious Keystone XL Pipeline; pauses oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands and water; and launches a review of existing energy leases. The Biden administration has set a goal of conserving at least 30% of federal lands and oceans by 2030.

Finally, the order calls for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that would “put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation, and addressing the changing climate.”

Whew.

President Biden’s recent EOs are aimed at both undoing some of the worst harms of the last administration, and setting a new tone and stage for effective and protective governance. Notably, the themes of racial equity and the climate crisis are woven through many of the new Executive Orders, underscoring the urgent need for attention to systemic inequities, environmental justice, and comprehensive action on climate. Regular Beyond Pesticides readers will be familiar with its coverage of how EPA’s approach to pesticide regulation is by nature racist. For example, risk assessment that calculates “acceptable” risks across population groups does not account for the disproportionate effect that pesticide use has on people in communities of color, and the agency’s failure to consider both occupational and nonoccupational exposures in its cumulative risk assessment contributes to the inequity of “risk” that then becomes codified in regulation.

The attention in the EOs to (and expected action on) the climate crisis — which also disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities — has the potential to ameliorate disparate impacts. Not least among those is the intended shift from a petroleum-based economy to one powered by renewable (“green”) energy, à la the Green New Deal or a similar initiative, which can be expected not only to create many new, nontoxic jobs, but also, to phase out the hegemony of the petroleum industry, which dominates in many communities of color.

A significant part of addressing the climate, equity, and toxics crises will be a retooling of agriculture and land management — from the petrochemical-dependent approach that dominates now to an organic and regenerative one. Such a system would protect public health, the environment, and biodiversity; end the poisoning of farmworkers and their families, and landscape workers; ultimately eliminate most petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester far more carbon than conventional agriculture can. The shift from a petroleum-based economy to a “green” economy represents benefits across many sectors, including fenceline communities that have borne the overwhelming brunt of environmental injustices.

According to advocates, all of the “words on paper” of the various Executive Orders are a very welcome beginning to the redress of the harms of the past four years, and of decades prior, and to a real shift in national priorities. Yet it must be recognized that translating what is written in these orders to an effective paradigm and cultural change across federal agencies is a daunting task. Federal agencies are entrenched in “status quo” thinking and operations, which too often fail to protect the public and allow, for example, use of dangerous pesticides and planet-killing fossil fuels — even when alternative strategies and materials, such as organic and regenerative agriculture, and renewable energy infrastructure, already exist and can be fully realized. This new administration provides a potential watershed in the transition to organics, green energy, and myriad other systems that cause negligible, and less disproportionate, harm.

Getting the charges of these EOs translated into concrete actions across federal agencies, and ultimately, into legislation that is much harder to “undo” by subsequent administrations, will require significant advocacy with agencies and legislators. It is critical that leaders and staff of federal agencies — beleaguered, discouraged, and in some cases, a skeletal version of what they used to be (thanks to the Trump administration) — are supported and encouraged by the administration, and by the public. Critically, the American people need to reach out to agencies, and to elected officials, to say, “Yes! These are the changes we want!” The public can also push forward on this agenda by supporting nongovernmental environmental and public health organizations that advocate for a less toxic, greener, and more-equitable future. Please get engaged in this work; join Beyond Pesticides; sign up for our Action Alerts; and/or contact Beyond Pesticides for more information on how to work for these critical, and hopeful, changes.

Sources: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/20/modernizing-regulatory-review/ and https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/27/fact-sheet-president-biden-takes-executive-actions-to-tackle-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad-create-jobs-and-restore-scientific-integrity-across-federal-government/

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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