Soon after taking office, President Biden committed to conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, an ambitious goal aimed at protecting wildlife while slashing planet-warming emissions.
With Republicans set to take control of the House, the next Congress appears unlikely to pass major legislation that would deliver on this goal. But Biden can still fulfill his commitment to conservation if he acts with urgency and wields his executive authority, according to a report shared with The Climate 202 before its broader release Tuesday.
The report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the administration, focused on eight actions that the administration could take to conserve public and private lands while combating climate change, respecting tribal sovereignty, and expanding access to nature for underserved communities.
The actions include designating new national monuments and national marine sanctuaries; conserving old-growth and mature forests; barring future mining and drilling on public lands; and harnessing new conservation funding from the recently passed climate law and the bipartisan infrastructure law.
“The president and his Cabinet have taken some really important steps, but more urgency is needed to meet this part of his climate commitment,” Drew McConville, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the lead author of the report, told The Climate 202.
“The good news — and a major conclusion here — is that he and his Cabinet already have the tools to make it happen,” said McConville, who previously served as a senior adviser on conservation issues at the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama.
Here’s a closer look at two of the report’s top recommendations:
One of the most consequential steps that Biden could take, the analysis argues, would be to establish new national monuments by invoking the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that empowers the president to safeguard public lands and waters for the benefit of all Americans.
- In October, Biden designated Colorado’s Camp Hale as a national monument, safeguarding the World War II-era military site that provides critical habitat for wildlife including elk, deer and migratory songbirds.
- And last fall, Biden restored full protections to three national monuments that President Donald Trump had reduced in size, including Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
- But Democrats, climate activists and Indigenous leaders have urged the president to use his powers to protect several other sites of environmental and cultural significance.
In an issue brief accompanying the report, the Center for American Progress highlighted 16 national monuments and marine sanctuaries that Biden could create or expand, including:
- Castner Range, a landscape in West Texas that is managed by the U.S. Army and harbors ancient cultural sites, rare plants and endangered wildlife.
- A site in southern Nevada known as Avi Kwa Ame, or Spirit Mountain, that several Native American tribes consider sacred.
- The site of the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Ill., an assault on a Black community by thousands of White citizens that catalyzed the creation of the NAACP.
“There are a number of national monument proposals that have really robust local support,” McConville said. “We’d encourage the president to listen to those communities and to act while he has the opportunity.”
The report also calls on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to withdraw sensitive and sacred lands from future drilling and mining.
- The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management on Monday announced two proposed oil and gas lease sales on more than 95,000 acres of land in Nevada and Utah. The lease sales were mandated by Democrats’ new climate law, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, as part of a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
- But Haaland has broad authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to take other public lands off the table. The move could have a major climate impact: Fossil fuel extraction and production on federal lands accounted for nearly a quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions between 2005 and 2014, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Of course, the fossil fuel industry would probably push back on any effort to withdraw these lands, especially amid high gasoline prices. In a recent 10-point plan to lower energy costs, the American Petroleum Institute called on the administration to swiftly hold mandated quarterly lease sales and to reinstate canceled leases on federal lands and waters.
However, McConville rejected the notion that any withdrawals would have a meaningful impact on prices at the pump, noting that roughly 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands are already open to oil and gas leasing and subsequent development.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.