A West Coast Agenda for Biden’s Environmental Goals

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Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

President-elect Joe Biden has offered a more comprehensive program to protect the environment and counter climate change than any presidential candidate in American history. His platform was developed with aid from veterans of the Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren presidential campaigns. For instance, a review team for the U.S. Department of the Interior includes Maggie Thomas of the climate policy group Evergreen Action, who helped put together Jay Inslee’s widely applauded environment program during his short-lived campaign for the White House.

The Biden goals are bracing, from achieving a 100 percent carbon-free energy power sector by 2035, to zero greenhouse gas pollution through the U.S. economy by 2050. The president-elect has proposed to spend $2 trillion on a clean energy-driven economic recovery. Climate change is one of four major policy areas highlighted on the Biden transition website.  The others: COVID-19, economic recovery, and racial equity.

We are promised immediate moves, notably rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, where U.S. withdrawal under Trump became final only this month.  Such world leaders as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have talked with Biden and gone public with going back to work on climate. Hopefully, too, soon after January 20, 2021, we will see climate science back on the web sites of federal agencies, from which all reference was excised almost overnight after Trump assumed office..

The President-elect is wise to think globally, although battles with the Senate are likely to rein in the ambitions of his administration. But Biden should also pursue a “West Coast agenda,” much of which he can achieve through executive orders.  An excellent starting point: Abandon the Trump administration’s bid to revoke California’s authority to set its own auto emission standards stricter than those issued by federal regulators.  The California rollback is not even popular with U.S. automakers, who fear that without a hike in fuel efficiency, their vehicles will be less competitive globally. Four major auto makers – Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagon – have sided with the state.

The “West Coast agenda” would also be a transboundary agenda, as well as an Alaska agenda. The Republicans found a backdoor device – a provision in the 2017 tax bill – effectively opening the Arctic National Wildlife’s Coastal Plain to oil and gas drilling.  The Trump administration has pressed the paperwork to get lease sales underway. No environmental impacts here. Biden needs to step in with an executive order.  The language can be determined, perhaps adding a requirement of honest environmental studies.  What impacts will drilling platforms, pipelines and haul roads have in North America’s most pristine wildlife habitat?  The new administration needs to act quickly.

A second Alaska move:  Reinstate Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay’s headwaters, threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine.  The Obama administration had EPA do exhaustive studies on the mine’s potential impacts on spawning habitat of the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery.  The Trump administration pulled back from using the Clean Water Act and set the Army Corps of Engineers on a path to license the project.  Its fate is up in the air. After disclosure of recorded conversations with mine promoters, Alaska’s GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have come out against the project.

The Trump Administration should begin the process to reverse recent rollback on the Roadless Rule as applied to the 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest.  The Trump administration pushed the U.S. Forest Service to reopen logging of old growth trees in the nation’s largest national forest. The Tongass makes up most of Southeast Alaska. Restoration of the Roadless Rule is a “3-fer” in the public interest.  1) It has climate benefits, in carbon that is sequestered in the forests of Southeast Alaska; 2) It protects Southeast Alaska’s thriving  fisheries industry; 3) It saves taxpayer dollars, in that logging roads in the Tongass have been subsidized to the tune of 96 cents on the dollar.

In the “Lower 48,” President Trump moved to unilaterally cut 2 million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Southern Utah.  Bears Ears was reduced by 85 percent. The monument slashing has been challenged in court, by plaintiffs ranging from Native American tribes to rock climbers to Patagonia. The 1906 Antiquities Act – a law first used by Theodore Roosevelt to protect the Grand Canyon and Washington’s Olympic Mountains – gives a President Biden authority to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, perhaps with advice from a commission that would include tribes and locals, but exclude the mining and petroleum industries.

The Biden Administration ought to reinstate a policy enacted by the Obama Administration under Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands.  It was reversed under Trump, who pledged to bring back coal but failed in that goal.

Among recent steps to be reversed, the delisting of wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Canis lupus has enjoyed federal protection west of U.S. 97, which runs north-south through Central Washington.  Wolves are not yet fully reestablished in the Cascades, and the state has experienced killings of wolves in the Methow and Teanaway valleys.

Other actions in our part of the world: Trudeau wants to work together on the environment.  O.K., time for Canadians to clean up acidic mine drainage from the Tulsequah Chief Mine on the British Columbia reaches of the Taku River, which endangers the salmon-rich fishery of Taku Inlet near Juneau.  Get tough on B.C. to extinguish Imperial Metals’ claims on the upper Skagit Valley, a “donut hole” that lacks park protection.

A positive chance for collaboration:  Canada is getting a new national park reserve in the Okanogan-Similkameen country, which marks the eastern end of the Cascades and the only desert in the Great White North.  (Signs warn of rattlesnakes in the valley of the Ashnola River, while you run into mountain goats and stumble over ptarmigan on 8,000-foot ridges in Cathedral Park.)

The U.S. and Canada could finalize a plan to reestablish grizzly bears in wild parklands on both sides of the border. They could also explore how to pay for removal of an old dam on the Similkameen River – a shout-out to Lynda Mapes’ piece in last Sunday’s Seattle Times – which blocks access to 348 miles of salmon spawning habitat.  The Similkameen rises in British Columbia, and flows south to join the Okanogan River in the U.S. (The two countries could also agree on a spelling of “Okanogan.”)

The U.S. and Canada must also renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty, originally signed by President Lyndon Johnson and Canada’s PM Lester Pearson at the Peace Arch in 1964.  The agreement enabled construction of the giant third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam, which lights and heats Northwest homes in cold, dark days this time of year.  Water was stored by building three big dams in British Columbia, which drowned forests, wiped out wildlife habitat, flooded orchards, and reserveroirized BC’s once-lovely Arrow Lakes. Power and flood control remain major objectives, but ecosystem management should be incorporated into a renewed Columbia River Treaty.

South of the 49th Parallel, restoration of Columbia/Snake River salmon runs remains on the table. Idaho has habitat that salmon need in the river. Federal judges have rejected as inadequate one proposed plan after another.  It is a political battle that has now lasted longer than the 30 Years War in Europe. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has said he wants to see salmon spawning in Idaho’s Upper Salmon River before he dies.  Make the Republican congressman’s dream a goal of the new Democratic administration.

Quite an agenda!  But consider the time lost due to four years of Trump.  The 2020 presidential campaign was fought against a backdrop not only of the COVID-19 pandemic but of a ceaseless hurricane season, vast fires in the West, and the world’s second warmest October on record.

1 COMMENT

  1. Speaking of mining, Biden should reject copper mining planned for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Water is life!

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