'Green blitz': As the election approaches, Biden lays out a slew of rules on environment and other priorities

WASHINGTON — As he tries to secure his legacy, President Joe Biden has abandoned a series of election rules on the environment and other issues, including a landmark regulation that would force coal-fired power plants to trap emissions from smokestacks or close them.

The limits on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power plants are the Democratic president's most ambitious effort yet to cut pollution to the planet from the energy sector, the nation's second-largest contributor to climate change.

The power plant rule is one of more than 60 regulations that Biden and his administration finalized last month to achieve his policy goals, including a pledge to roughly halve carbon emissions that cause climate change by 2030. The regulations, led by the Environmental Protection Agency but involving a host of other federal agencies, are being issued in quick succession as the Biden administration races to meet a looming but uncertain deadline to ensure they don't be destroyed by a new Congress – or a new president.

“The Biden administration is in green blitz mode,” said Lena Moffitt, executive director of the activist group Evergreen Action.

The barrage of regulations covers more than just the environment.

As the clock ticks toward Election Day, the Biden administration has issued or proposed rules on a wide range of issues, from student loan forgiveness and affordable housing to overtime, health care and compensation for unreasonably delayed airline passengers, as he tries to woo voters convincing in his re-election bid against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

In total, federal agencies broke records by publishing 66 major final rules in April, more than any month during Biden's presidency, according to the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University. More than half of the rules (34) were expected to have an economic impact of at least $200 million, the center said.

That figure is by far the most spent by a recent president in a single month, the center said. The next closest were 20 such rules issued by Trump in his final month as president.

Biden does not shy away from promoting the rules. For example, he went to Madison, Wisconsin, to promote his student loan relief actions after the Supreme Court rejected his original plan. More often, Cabinet officials are deployed around the country, often to swing states, to promote the administration's actions.

Policies created through regulations are easier to undo than laws when a new administration takes office, especially with a deeply divided Congress.

“There's no time to start like today,” Biden said on his first day in office as he moved to dismantle Trump's legacy.

Over the course of his presidency, Biden has restored protections for endangered species that were rolled back by Trump. He has also raised fuel efficiency standards, rolling back the former president.

The Department of Education's gainful employment rule targets college programs that leave graduates with high levels of debt compared to their expected earnings. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved to reinstate a rule intended to eliminate racial disparities in the suburbs that was rejected by Trump.

Trump is widely expected to roll back the Biden rules if he were to win in November.

The Congressional Review Act gives lawmakers the ability to invalidate new rules after they have been approved by the executive branch. Republicans in Congress used the once-ambiguous law more than a dozen times in 2017 to undo actions by former President Barack Obama. Four years later, Democrats returned the favor, repealing three Trump administration regulations.

The law requires votes within 60 legislative days of publishing a line in the Federal Register, a changing deadline that depends on how long Congress is in session. Administration officials say they believe the actions taken so far this year will be shielded from the overhaul bill in the next Congress, although Republicans are almost entirely opposed to these measures and have filed challenges that could lead to a series of votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate in the coming years. few months.

Biden will likely veto any repeal effort that reaches his desk before his term ends.

“The rules are safe in this Congress,” given Democratic control of the Senate and the White House, said Michael Gerrard, who teaches environmental law at Columbia Law School. If Republicans take control of Congress and the White House next year, “all bets are off,” Gerrard said.

In addition to the rule for power plants, the EPA has also issued separate rules targeting tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks and methane emissions from oil and gas drilling. The Interior Department, meanwhile, limited new oil and gas leases for 13 million acres of a federal petroleum reserve in Alaska and required oil and gas companies to pay more to drill on federal land and meet stricter requirements to replace old or abandoned clean sources.

Industry groups and Republicans blasted Biden's actions as exaggerated.

“This barrage of new EPA regulations ignores our nation's ongoing electrical reliability challenges and is the wrong approach at a critical time for our nation's energy future,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

In addition to climate, the EPA also finalized a long-delayed ban on asbestos, a carcinogen that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, and placed strict limits on certain so-called “forever chemicals” in drinking water. The EPA also required more than 200 chemical plants across the country to reduce toxic emissions likely to cause cancer, especially in poor and minority communities already overburdened by industrial pollution.

Although recently implemented, many of Biden's actions have been planned since he took office, restoring or strengthening more than a hundred environmental rules that Trump had weakened or eliminated.

The rules come two years after Democrats passed a sweeping bill aimed at boosting clean energy that is widely hailed as the most important climate legislation ever.

Taken together, Democrats say, the climate law and Biden's executive actions could solidify his standing with climate-oriented voters — including young people who helped put Biden in power four years ago — and help him fend off Trump in a likely rematch in November.

“Every community in this country deserves to breathe clean air and drink clean water,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “We pledged to listen to people suffering from pollution and take action to protect them.”

Along with votes in Congress, the rules are likely to face legal challenges from the industry and Republican-led states, including several lawsuits that have already been filed.

“Part of our strategy is to make sure that we understand the current legal culture that we find ourselves in, and to make sure that every action, every rule, every policy is more sustainable and as legally sound as possible,” Regan told a conference of environmental journalists last month.

Yet looming over all executive action is the Supreme Court, where a six-to-three conservative majority has increasingly reined in the powers of federal agencies, including the EPA. A landmark 2022 ruling limited the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming, and a separate ruling weakened regulations protecting millions of acres of wetlands.

A case pending in court could put the EPA's air pollution control plan on hold while litigation continues.

“We live in challenging times in so many ways, but we at EPA remain focused on the mission,” Regan said at the April conference. “And then we actually just have to defend that case in court.”

Rules issued by other agencies also face legal challenges.

Republican-led states are challenging the administration's new Title IX rules, which provide expanded protections for LGBTQ+ students and new safeguards for sexual assault victims. They're also suing to overturn a rule requiring background checks on buyers at gun shows and places outside stores.

Gerrard, a law professor at Columbia, said the threat of executive branch actions being overturned by Congress or the courts “makes it difficult for either side to build any momentum.” That uncertainty also makes it harder for the industry to comply, as they are unsure how long the rules will remain in place.

Gerrard and other experts said the climate bill and bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021 are more lasting and will be harder for a future president to relax. The two laws, combined with executive action, will put the country on track to meet Biden's goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, environmentalists say.

The climate law, which includes nearly $400 billion in spending to boost clean energy, will have a ripple effect on the economy for years to come, said Christy Goldfuss, executive director of the Natural Resource Defense Council and a former Obama administration official.

She pushed back on complaints from industry and Republicans that the power plant rule is a continuation of an Obama-era “war on coal.”

“It's an attack on pollution,” she said, adding that fossil fuels like coal and oil are subject to the Clean Air Act “and need to be cleaned up.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who led the challenge in the 2022 Supreme Court case, said the EPA was adhering to what he called Biden's “Green New Deal” agenda.

“Unelected bureaucrats continue their quest to legislate instead of relying on elected members of Congress for guidance,” said Morrisey, the Republican candidate for governor in the state.

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