Key Environmental Law and Policy Issues to Watch in the Biden Administration

On November 7, Joe Biden was projected to become President-elect. This news alert provides a high-level review of issues to watch and changes to expect in a Biden administration. Although the makeup of the Senate is not yet entirely clear, it seems that there will not be a change in Senate leadership and that the House will remain under Democratic control. The ultimate fate of the Senate majority will be decided on January 5, 2021 with the runoff of the two Georgia Senate Seats. For the Democrats to become the majority, they would need to prevail in both Senate races.

The next few years will see significant shifts in U.S. environmental and natural resource law and policy, as well as changes in political and perhaps some career personnel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies that establish and implement U.S. environmental regulation. The next six months look to be especially consequential, as the Trump administration seeks to finalize certain ongoing efforts while the new Biden administration identifies and implements early priorities. Although some form of the stimulus bill may get bipartisan support, and Congress must yet fund the government through the appropriations process, we do not expect any major environmental legislation during the remainder of the Trump administration. The Trump administration, however, still has complete Executive Branch authority and can still issue new rules, pursue enforcement actions, and promulgate significant rules. Similarly, without control of the Senate, a Biden Administration will be unlikely to pass significant environmental legislation, particularly a climate bill, but will be able to direct policy through the Executive Branch.

As events unfold, we will provide updates. Please contact the authors, your usual B&D attorney, or any member of our Election Analysis Task Force (including several former senior EPA and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials) for more information.

Key Takeaways

The Regulated Community should consider taking the following actions in the short term:

  1. Administrative litigation and rulemakings. Know where you stand with respect to ongoing litigation (which may be stayed in the early days of a new administration) and pending rulemakings, as well as recently-promulgated rulemakings or Executive Orders that may be subject to full or partial reversal.
  2. Climate, environmental justice, clean energy, and vehicles. Anticipate aggressive action by the Biden administration on climate change, environmental justice, and clean energy and vehicle technologies. If Congress remains divided, legislation is unlikely to occur, but much can be done through Executive Order and other executive branch action. The administration will also promote infrastructure reform which could be significant and will require legislation that may be able to get bi-partisan support.
  3. Federal-state coordination. Anticipate renewed state-federal coordination, with exceptions and some “patchwork quilt” effects, as the Biden administration EPA, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and DOJ join forces with progressive states on enforcement and implementation of policy priorities. Many of the environmental statutes are designed to be implemented cooperatively between the state and federal governments. This “cooperative federalism” is a balance that in many but not all cases, Trump officials favored with a more limited federal government role and a narrow interpretation of the scope of federal statutory authority. Expect Biden’s EPA and DOJ to increase federal enforcement, directing the agencies to pursue appropriate cases to the fullest extent permitted by law.
  4. Criminal enforcement. Expect criminal enforcement to be more vigorously pursued.
  5. International engagement. Prepare for renewed engagement on international environmental and waste treaties, as the Biden administration reengages in many of these issues.
  6. New key administration officials. Pay attention to new key officials in the new administration, some of whom will probably be announced in December. Generally speaking, cabinet-level officers are announced first. Below is a list of the cabinet-level officials in the areas of energy, environment, project development, and worker safety and the Senate committee that would review their nomination.

Immediate (Pre-Inauguration) Considerations

Transition Process

President-elect Biden has an established transition team with five co-chairs and a 15-person advisory board. The leaders are as follows:

  • Former U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman
    Appointed to the U.S. Senate from Delaware on Jan. 15, 2009 and served until Nov. 10, 2010.
  • Jeffrey Zients
    CEO of Cranemere, a private equity firm. Past Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, at the White House Feb. 2014-Jan. 2017. 
  • Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
    Elected Governor of New Mexico in Nov. 2018. Served three terms in the U.S. House. 
  • U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond
    Member of the U.S. House representing LA-2. First elected in Nov. 2010. 
  • Anita Dunn
    Senior advisor on the Biden campaign.

President-elect Biden has also indicated that he intends to name the White House Chief of Staff very soon.

Other specific transition steps typically occur. In September, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent a memorandum to all of the federal agencies titled "Guidance on Presidential Transition Preparation." The memo required each agency to designate a senior career official as in charge of the transition, and outlined its purpose as follows:

"This memorandum provides guidance to agencies on transition preparation requirements and deadlines consistent with the statutory obligations in the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended (3 U.S.C. § 102 note) (the Act) and best practices. In addition to the ongoing work required by the Act, this guidance is intended to ensure the seamless continuity of Federal government operations and services during a transition to a second term of an administration or to a new administration. It also increases the transparency of the transition process. As agencies implement the guidance outlined below, officials should approach the work in ways that are responsive to the ongoing needs of the current administration while balancing the preparations for a potential new administration."

Biden’s transition team has already signed a memorandum of understanding with President Trump’s General Services Administration to begin planning for a potential handover of power. The document is required under the Presidential Transition Act and formalizes how the federal government will go about assisting Biden’s transition team ahead of Election Day. For the memorandum to be effective, the GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, must sign a letter acknowledging Biden as the President-elect.

In addition to the transition team, “landing teams” will meet with each federal agency to collect information and interview selected individuals to prepare for the new administration. Those landing teams are not agency officials and do not receive confidential or privileged information, but are extraordinarily valuable to the new administration. They report regularly to the incoming White House on the immediate issues facing the administration and provide an important conduit between the incoming President’s team and the executive agencies.


While landing and transition teams have already begun work (or will soon increase the pace of their work), the Trump administration still has nearly three months with which to complete its work. Amidst the changeover in political appointed positions, career staff will continue to make decisions and move matters forward. Ensure that your relationships with career officials at headquarters and regional offices are sound, as you will need to rely on them over the next six months and beyond.

It is typical for virtually all of the outgoing administration political appointees to resign before the new administration starts. The exception is often the U.S. Attorneys, who are sometimes held over in their positions. At the beginning of a new administration, political positions are either temporarily filled by political appointees or often with senior career officials.

Ensure that your relationships with career officials at headquarters and regional offices are sound, as you will need to rely on them as appointed positions change over the next six months.

Post-Inauguration Administrative, Legislative, and Judicial Process

Expect the new administration, upon taking office, to immediately issue a directive withdrawing pending regulations that are not yet published in the federal register. This could include final rules that are awaiting publication. This is a standard approach by a new administration.

The new administration will also review executive orders and guidance documents and rescind those that conflict with Biden policy direction. There are over a dozen, maybe two dozen, different executive orders and many, many guidance documents relevant to environmental policy direction. These do not have the force of law but often direct agencies to take specific actions. The Environmental Law Institute and Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program have produced useful references on this subject. Note that rescinding an Executive Order, which can be done immediately, does not rescind implementing actions, such as new regulations finalized in response to the Executive Order.

Without democratic leadership in the Senate, significant environmental legislation is not expected, with the possible exception of a bi-partisan infrastructure bill. Without legislation, Biden will be particularly interested in moving policy forward using Executive Branch tools. A Biden administration will want to issue new executive orders to re-direct the federal government consistent with his policy initiatives, such as environmental justice. For example, he has already pledged to revise and reinvigorate the 1994 Executive Order 12898 (EO 12898) Federal actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. In addition, he has pledged that he would rejoin the Paris Accords on the first day of the administration, which can be done by Executive Order.

DOJ will likely seek to stay federal litigation, particularly litigation challenging rulemaking, to allow time to develop new administration positions. The administration would then have the option of supporting the regulation, rescinding it through the Administrative Procedure Act process, and/or replacing it with a new regulation. Currently, litigation is pending on several high profile rules, including the Navigable Waters Protection Rule that defines the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, the National Environmental Policy Act revisions, and the Affordable Clean Energy Rule which regulates greenhouse gases from coal-fired electric generating units. In addition, there is active litigation on the California waiver, which determines whether California will be allowed to continue to set vehicle emission standards.

Beveridge & Diamond has assembled an Election Analysis Task Force—including members with former senior U.S. and state government experience—that is closely watching election-related developments across multiple environmental, energy, and natural resources subject areas. Please let us know if and how we can assist you in addressing the impacts of the election on your organization. Visit our Election Resources Page for additional resources and information on upcoming events. On November 10, John Cruden and Allyn Stern hosted a webinar outlining what industry can expect regarding environmental and natural resource law, policy, and litigation under the next administration. Please click here to view the webinar on-demand.