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The Biden administration’s recent executive orders on climate action and environmental protections at first glance may inspire hope. Digging deeper, it becomes evident they lack substance.
1. The language in the White House statement takes no strong stand against extractive industries: “The order directs the Secretary of the Interior to pause on entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters to the extent possible …” In other words, they will take a break in issuing new leases for oil and gas wells, if possible. But the “pause” only applies to federal lands where only one quarter of the extraction occurs with the majority taking place on state, private and tribal lands. Plus, it does not revoke leases already issued. Only half of the extraction applications approved between 2014 and 2019 have been used yet, and those applications will still be honored — meaning drilling will continue on federal lands.
2. Biden’s temporary moratorium on Arctic Wildlife Refuge drilling is a far cry from the permanent ban he campaigned on, and even this partial victory is in large part due to the pressure from the conservation movement. A recent lease auction for refuge drilling was a complete flop with only three bids submitted, signaling a hesitancy of corporations to undertake long wait periods and lawsuits that would surely come due to public opposition. Big Oil in reality has lots of easier options to drill in Alaska, a state abundantly pockmarked with oil and gas wells on state and private land.
3. The permit revocation for the Keystone XL pipeline is also a reflection of the strength of the Indigenous-led movement that has fought against it for years. This should be seen as a people’s victory, but what about the other pipelines carrying dirty tar sands crude like Line 3 and Sandpiper? Frontline communities are currently fighting the abandonment of leaking Line 3 and the construction of the replacement Sandpiper pipeline that threatens vital water sources and ecosystems in Minnesota as it transports crude from Canada to Superior, Wisconsin., across several Native reservations.
4. Biden’s reentry into the Paris Agreement, which is a non-binding agreement, will be used as an imperialist propaganda tool against China and other developing nations of the Global South with Biden already stating that he will pressure the so-called big polluters to do their fair share. The U.S. government has never honestly addressed this country’s historic contributions to the problem that far surpass all other countries, nor the fact that the U.S. has by far the largest per capita emissions today — with China coming in 10th. As the White House statement says, “ … the United States will exercise its leadership to promote a significant increase in global ambition.” This means continuing to use imperialist tactics to demonize others for the problem and not truly to make the changes needed at home, although China has by far had the largest investments in wind and solar energy than any other nation for many years.
5. Biden’s plan to shift to a carbon free energy sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050 will rely heavily on nuclear, which is not truly renewable and has the third highest lifecycle emissions after scrubbed coal-fired plants and natural gas. The nuclear industry is heavily subsidized and very profitable for a few, while poisoning frontline communities through the entire process from extraction to waste disposal.
6. Biden also plans to greatly expand the electric vehicle market and build “clean energy commercialization.” This means selling more stuff to individuals who can afford it, rather than making a truly sustainable shift in how the system functions. The plan never mentions zero-emission public transit and high-speed rail, which would greatly reduce the need for single-occupancy vehicle ownership and overcome the class divide of who can afford EV’s. But efficient and widespread public transit would hurt the profits of the corporations who prefer to keep selling individuals vehicles that need regular replacement. Studies have shown there are literally not enough rare Earth minerals on the planet needed for the batteries to replace every gas-powered vehicle.
7. The plan also calls for good-paying union jobs in the clean energy sector as well as equity for communities disproportionately impacted by pollution. However, unless Biden plans to fund jobs directly through the federal government, like the New Deal of the 1930’s did, corporations will continue to keep labor costs as low as possible absent a mass workers movement demanding unionization and fair pay. And never before has the EPA — even before Reagan and subsequent administrations weakened its authority — truly addressed the use of poor communities and communities of color as sacrifice zones for big polluters. How do you address this inherent aspect of capitalism that puts corporate profits above people’s lives and the planet without systemic change? How do you make binding federal mandates to protect communities when states’ rights supersede federal — i.e., Cancer Alley is allowed to exist because the state of Louisiana sets its own emissions standards that are lower than the EPA’s.
8. Biden has a long 50+ year career as a reactionary politician serving big business and Wall Street. Support for Big Oil has always been a bipartisan position, one side is just more vocal about it.
9. Executive orders are a far cry from binding legislation and can be overturned easily by the next administration as Biden is now doing with many of Trump’s orders. And considering Pelosi and establishment Democrats’ cynical dismissal of AOC’s Green New Deal — which Biden borrows heavily from — it is unlikely that any significant change will come of this.
These are issues that need to be addressed as we push for follow through on the goals of these executive orders. We cannot go to sleep now that Biden has issued this climate agenda. Progressive change under capitalism only comes through mass sustained people’s struggles that threaten the profits of the corporations. Native communities are on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and transport; we must stand with those blocking Big Oil from continuing to plunder the planet at the expense of our future. And we need to build a mass anti-capitalist, pro-socialist climate justice movement because socialism is the only mechanism that will once and for all take control away from the billionaire class that is driving us to extinction.
Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism, which can be purchased here.