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Trump vs. Biden on the environment—here’s where they stand

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Image of Biden

The two presidential candidates couldn’t be further apart on their actions and plans for the environment. We break it down in the runup to the elections.

By Craig Welch and Sarah Gibbens

Illustrations by Christopher Turner

Published October 19, 2020

Voters in the United States face starkly different choices for president in 2020, especially when it comes to the candidates’ positions on energy and environmental issues.

President Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, has called climate change a hoax and has taken steps to remove the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which 195 signatories set voluntary limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, considers climate change an emergency and has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement. He also plans to convene a global climate summit to persuade leaders to set more ambitious and enforceable targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump’s campaign touts opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration. The Biden campaign says it would permanently protect ANWR from energy development.

From fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks to construction of new oil pipelines to the regulation of mercury and carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, the two men vying for the White House have staked out virtually polar opposite stances on most major environmental issues.

Here’s a comparison of what Trump has said and done as president with what Biden has said he would do:

Fossil fuel infrastructure/regulation

Pipeline projects

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Trump

Favors the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines

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Biden

Promises to stop Keystone XL; hasn’t taken a position on Dakota Access

Government backing for fossil fuels

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Trump

Supports unobstructed growth of the fossil fuel industry

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Biden

Favors ending fossil fuel subsidies

Oil regulation

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Trump

Rolled back Obama-era rules to halt methane leaks. Supports unrestricted fracking

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Biden

Says he wouldn’t ban fracking, but would ban new offshore drilling and new permits on public lands

Coal

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Trump

Has reduced and rolled back regulations that limit coal production

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Biden

Says cheap renewable energy has eliminated U.S. demand for new coal plants

Trump: Four days after taking office, Trump resurrected the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects, both of which had been rejected or sidelined during the Obama Administration. (For now, Dakota Access is pumping oil but faces a court-ordered environmental review. Keystone is stalled while facing legal and procedural hurdles.) The administration announced it would not take enforcement action against pipeline operators in rural areas that forego maintenance on some types of gas lines.

Trump ended a moratorium on new leases for coal production, and he attempted to open most coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, before exempting the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coasts at a campaign event in September. He announced plans for a 78-million-acre oil lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico, which has been postponed until later this fall;. During his tenure, the U.S. has become a net exporter of both oil and natural gas and surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil producer. All are trends that had been underway for more than a decade, since the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, began to increase production.

The president issued an executive order early in his tenure to reduce regulatory barriers to oil, natural gas, and coal development. He expedited the approval process for liquified natural gas exports. Obama Administration rules that required oil and gas drillers to do more to halt methane leaks were rescinded—even over the objection of some oil majors like Shell Oil. The administration also rolled back new Obama-era rules that had increased oil company preparedness for spills on the outer continental shelf.

Biden: Biden has said he, like the Obama Administration of which he was a part, promises to end the Keystone XL pipeline project. He has not taken a public position on the future of the Dakota Access pipeline, but his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, signed a brief urging a federal judge to shut it down.

Biden declined to accept campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, and would seek to end subsidies for the industry domestically and abroad. He has said he would reinstate ANWR protections; he’d remove Arctic waters from consideration for oil and gas development.He opposes new permits for oil development on public lands and would ban offshore drilling. But he recently said he “would not ban fracking.”

Biden would seek to work with other countries to get China to stop exporting fossil fuel projects, and to offer alternative financing for cleaner ones. He also would try to convince the Group of 20 to eliminate coal financing for all but the poorest countries.

Biden has said he would set “aggressive” new methane limits on all oil operations; he would aim to plug abandoned oil and gas wells and reclaim abandoned mines. He has said that he would undo Trump’s many rollbacks of Obama-era environmental rules, and that he aims to end fossil fuel use for electricity within 15 years.

Climate policy

Climate policy

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Trump

Left Paris Agreement, rolled back Obama-era emissions rules, and doesn’t factor climate change into policy decisions

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Biden

Plans to rejoin the Paris Agreement, reinstate emissions rules, and invest $2 trillion to confront the “grave threat”

Comprehensive climate plan

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Trump

Has not announced a plan to tackle climate change

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Biden

Climate plan outlines strategies to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050

Trump: The Trump Administration rescinded several Obama-era climate reports and memos that required the government to place greater emphasis on climate change in decision-making. Trump also repealed an Obama executive order requiring rising seas be taken into account during federal infrastructure projects. His National Park Service director ended an Obama plan to manage parks with an eye toward climate resilience. And he pledged to stop contributing to the United Nations’ international “Green Climate Fund.”

Biden: Biden has proposed spending $2 trillion to reach zero emissions by 2050. He plans to host a global climate summit during his first 100 days in office. A National Intelligence Estimate would be created that assessed threats to national and economic security from climate change and create a government plan to promote clean energy exports. Biden said that in addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement, he’d push countries to increase the ambitions of their climate targets.

He plans to publish rankings to “name and shame” countries falling behind on their climate commitments. He would use tariffs and trade to make sure goods imported from overseas bore the full cost of climate pollution, and would require all federal permitting decisions to consider impacts on climate change.

Biden says that in his first year he would “demand” that Congress enact legislation to set enforcement mechanisms for reaching zero emissions by 2050, including milestones that start by the end of his first term. Public companies would be pushed to disclose climate risks and greenhouse gas emissions in their operations. Biden wants the insurance industry to lower premiums in communities that invest in climate resilience.

Renewables/clean energy

Creating market incentives for renewables

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Trump

Undid Obama-era rules that encouraged the growth of renewable energy

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Biden

Supports rapid new innovations and using the renewable energy market as a major job creator

Cars

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Trump

Rescinded higher fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks

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Biden

Wants strict fuel-efficiency standards in an attempt to make purchases of all new cars and light trucks electric

Nuclear

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Trump

Wants to ramp up nuclear energy and uranium production

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Biden

Supports developing small-scale nuclear reactors

Trump: During the pandemic, Trump offered assistance to the oil and gas industry, but then hit up solar and wind companies for back rent on public land. Trump spiked Obama’s “Clean Power Rule,” which aimed not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but also to encourage growth of solar and wind power. The Trump Administration placed tariffs on imported solar modules, slowing market growth; ended solar tax credits, and approved far fewer green energy projects than its predecessor. The administration also insisted on an end to tax credits for electric vehicles. Trump also gutted—over the objection of some carmakers—proposed increases in fuel-economy standards for cars and small trucks. The Trump Administration claims advancing nuclear energy as one of its accomplishments.

Biden: Biden’s climate plan says he would seek to invest $400 billion over 10 years in clean energy and climate research and use tax policy and other mechanisms to incentivize rapid deployment of innovations. The federal government’s procurement system would be used to drive the spread of electric vehicles, as would strict fuel-efficiency standards and a reeinstatement of the electric vehicle tax credit. Biden would help mayors and governors deploy 500,000 new electric-vehicle charging stations by 2030. He proposes to double offshore wind production by 2030.

If elected, Biden said he would set aggressive new appliance-efficiency requirements. New energy efficiency standards would be part of the upgrade of four million buildings; two million more would be weatherized in four years. The goal would be to cut building emissions in half by 2035 through retrofits. He would introduce incentives for local regulations to allow for denser, more affordable development near public transit.

A new research agency would aim to: develop grid-scale electricity  storage at a tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries; create small-scale, inexpensive nuclear power reactors; develop refrigerants and air-conditioning units that cool without increasing global warming, and reduce carbon emissions from agriculture and the steel and concrete industries..Biden also proposes to shrink rail travel time from New York City to Washington, D.C. by half, expand rail service to the south, and start construction of a coast-to-coast high-speed rail system.

Pollution

Pollution

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Trump

Weakened and rolled back several regulations aimed at protecting water

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Biden

Wants to strengthen pollution laws to reduce the disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color

Plastic

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Trump

Launched a program that focuses on recycling to reduce plastic waste. Has dismissed single-use plastic bans

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Biden

Mentions plastic as a threat to safe water in his climate plan. Supports phasing out single-use plastics

Trump: Trump gutted Obama-era rules that prevented coal mines from dumping ash containing toxic metals into streams. He extended the lifespan of dangerous coal ash waste sites. His administration weakened a rule that limited toxic power plant discharge into public waterways. It also rescinded an Obama-era rule that had expanded the types of wetlands that industry and agriculture must avoid polluting under the Clean Water Act.

Trump declined to improve regulations to further reduce smog and particulate matter. He proposed budget cuts to the Superfund program, which already faces a huge backlog of cleanup projects. Under Trump, the mining industry has not needed to prove it can afford the cost of any eventually needed cleanup of toxic waste.Trump reversed previous efforts by EPA to ban chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide.

In 2019, the Trump Administration launched the Plastics Innovation Challenge to reduce plastic waste through better recycling technology. But the president opposes single-use plastic bans, such as for plastic bags, and has even sold plastic straws on his campaign website.

Biden: Biden plans to establish an environmental justice division within the Department of Justice, which would support litigation and increased enforcement against polluters. To limit the concentration of polluting industries in communities of color, he would require agencies to take into account cumulative pollutant levels before issuing or renewing permits under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Forty percent of clean energy funds would be committed to disadvantaged communities. He would speed up testing for lead in drinking water, as well as declare more toxic chemicals hazardous so they could be removed from water pipes. In his first 100 days, Biden says he would produce a report identifying which strategies would result in the fastest improvements to air and water quality.

On the campaign trail Biden has said he supports phasing out single-use plastics.

Land, water, wildlife conservation

Conservation

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Trump

Many animals lost endangered species protections under Trump Administration

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Biden

Supports goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s land and water by 2030 as a way to slow extinctions

Protected lands

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Trump

Dramatically shrank some national monuments on land and at sea, but added 1.3 million acres of wilderness areas

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Biden

Promised to restore protections to several areas opened up by the Trump Administration

Trump: Trump dramatically cut the size of two protected areas in Utah—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments—in the biggest reversal of public land protection in history. Then he released plans that would open to energy and mining exploration the areas he excluded from monument status. He also moved to expand fossil-fuel production in Alaska, not only in ANWR but also in other sensitive areas of Alaska’s coastal plain deemed off-limits by the Obama Administration. He proposed opening more of the country’s largest forest, Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, to road-building and logging.

In 2019, on the other hand, Trump signed a law that created 1.3 million acres of new wilderness and added new protections to another million acres. He also, at the behest of two GOP senators facing tough reelection bids, signed a law that funneled more money into upkeep of national parks than at any time in half a century.

Trump disbanded a special Obama-era council on oceans, and scaled back efforts to coordinate ecological protections for the seas. He pushed to open an Atlantic Ocean marine national monument to commercial fishing. A measure to work more with other countries to clean up ocean debris became law under Trump. The White House moved to reduce regulatory barriers to commercial fishing and fish farming at sea. An executive order by Obama designed to protect the biodiversity of the Bering Sea region was revoked.

Trump changed rules to allow economic factors to be considered when listing plants and animals for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and to reduce protections for species listed merely as threatened. His administration also reduced the types of lands and waters that should be protected as “critical habitat” for troubled species. A policy change was proposed that would eliminate penalties for energy companies when they accidentally kill migratory birds.

The Trump Administration also proposed rolling back portions of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to measure impacts to plants and animals when proposing new projects like highways or dams. Scientists have shown that construction of Trump’s border wall is harmful to sensitive species. Trump tried to limit public comment on oil and gas leasing in areas that could harm the troubled sage grouse and overturned a ban on lead tackle and bullets for hunting and fishing. He overturned a ban on hunting swimming caribou from boats, hunting black bears with lights at den sites, hunting brown bears with bait, killing wolves and coyotes in dens, and hunting black bears with dogs in national preserves in Alaska.

Biden: Would seek to increase reforestation projects on federal lands and establish national parks and national monuments “that reflect America’s natural heritage.” He would aim to slow extinction rates by conserving 30 percent of America’s land and water by 2030. His climate plan proposes to permanently protect ANWR and says he would ban new oil and gas permits on public land and water. In a policy document outlining his commitment to Native American tribes, Biden says he will undo Trump’s rollback on Bears Ears. The Democratic Party platform promises to reinstate protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

Biden’s climate plan promises to “protect biodiversity, slow extinction rates, and leverage natural climate solutions,” noting that the Obama Administration protected 550 million acres in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The plan talks about repurposing AmeriCorps for sustainability;in a Democratic presidential debate earlier this year, Biden touted a “civilian climate corps” that could be used to reduce vulnerability to wildfires and floods. Before joining the presidential ticket, his Senate voting record shows he supported expanding and protecting public lands and was willing to appropriate funds to do so.

Additional design and development by Kennedy Elliott.