How Biden climate policy might impact Georgia

With the ambitious goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, President Joe Biden, in one week, signed a series of executive orders prioritizing climate change and giving the country an urgent push toward eliminating the emissions that have led to global warming.

Though many of those orders are far-reaching, addressing issues of national and international concern, many will also have significant impacts on Georgia.

“A lot of the executive orders are far from Georgia, but they signal a commitment to move away from fossil fuels and that in general has significant repercussions in Georgia,” said Marilyn Brown, professor in the school of public policy at Georgia Tech. “We will be seeing a move to more renewables in our power sector and an uptick of electric vehicles in our transportation sector.”

Last week, on his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order to “tackle the climate crisis,” which ranged from monetizing damages from increases in greenhouse gas emissions to revoking the permit for a pipeline that would have brought oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

On Wednesday, a second batch of executive orders included actions such as directing federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, advancing conservation, agriculture and reforestation and integrating environmental justice into the mission of every federal agency.

Biden has also ordered a massive review of executive orders issued during the Trump administration that have an impact on the environment.

But some policy experts have suggested this isn’t the time for sweeping actions that will come with a hefty expense, particularly when the economy, hobbled by the pandemic, is in need of recovery.

“I understand he is trying to satisfy his base and campaign promises, but everyone needs to take a step back and realize we are meeting these goals without any need of heavy-handed executive orders,” said Benita Dodd, Vice President of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Dodd said Biden’s actions to reduce or eliminate fossil fuels will only serve to raise the price of gas and result in jobs lost. Georgia residents will feel the repercussions as much as anyone else, she said.

“We cannot afford to go on a solar grid or a wind grid and the vast majority of our population cannot afford an electric car,” Dodd said. “With an economy struggling to recover during COVID-19, we can’t be taking two steps back.”

One of the most watched environmental issues in the state is the fate of a proposed titanium mine a few miles from the Okefenokee Swamp. In October, state officials determined that the wetlands in the proposal are not subject to federal approvals based on new regulations established by the Trump administration.

While Biden’s executive order, which included a mandate to review the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” is encouraging, it may have little impact on the mining project, said environmental advocates.

“ ... that review does not stop projects like Twin Pines’ proposed mine near the Okefenokee Swamp from destroying our vital resources, which is why we are continuing to challenge the rule in court,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, said it was unclear what the timeline might look like for reinstating protections of certain wetlands. “There is definitely some urgency for the swamp,” she said.

Also among the 48 Environmental Protection Agency actions under review is how electric utilities dispose of coal ash — waste from coal burning that contains toxic chemicals known to be harmful to human health.

Environmentalists and residents near power plants where coal ash is stored have expressed ongoing concerns about disposal methods that involve storing the ash in unlined pits in the ground where it can seep into groundwater. A review of the current regulations could bring significant changes with a new administration.

“The EPA could come along and say suddenly you can’t just leave the stuff in an unlined landfill. It is a place to watch,” said Gayer, noting that while Biden has made a good start, there is much more work to do. “The Biden administration came out of the gate swinging on a bunch of different issues and I am glad the environment is one of those,” she said.