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The Insider

With the Nov. 3 election now less than two weeks away, observers are grappling with the starkly divergent implications for federal environmental policy between a re-election victory for President Donald Trump or a win by Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Stakeholders with a variety of views -- including environmental groups, industry associations and states -- are preparing for either continued deregulation during a second Trump term or a shift to more aggressive standards with a heavy focus on climate change under Biden.

Experts suggest that a Trump victory would allow his administration to defend a range of environmental policy rollbacks, while also expanding such plans:

Trump Re-Election Would Enable Defense, Expansion Of EPA Rollbacks
A scenario in which President Donald Trump wins re-election next month would allow EPA to bolster its defense of sundry climate and other environmental rollbacks in court while embarking on new deregulatory efforts, observers say, including broader changes to cost-benefit rules and limiting the scope of future carbon controls.

A Trump victory would also likely heighten the political importance of state and regional climate change initiatives, while simultaneously exacerbating tensions between states and a White House that is already hostile to many such efforts.

Importantly, a second Trump term would also give the administration enough time to revise its initial deregulatory plans if current versions fail in court, making it more likely they survive, the observers add.

It would be an “opportunity [for the Trump administration] to consolidate and finalize” deregulatory rules and interpretations now pending at EPA or in the courts, said University of Michigan environment and public policy professor Barry Rabe during an Oct. 15 Brookings Institution webinar.

“Nothing is a done deal at this point,” Crowell and Moring attorney Amanda Shafer Berman similarly said in Oct. 16 remarks, referencing Trump rules under litigation -- including relaxed or scrapped climate standards for power plants, vehicles and oil and gas equipment -- as dependent in large measure on a Trump victory.

Meanwhile, observers expect a Biden administration would weigh a wide range of approaches to bolster environmental protection, including new regulations or action on the Hill:

Biden May Pursue ‘All Of The Above’ Strategy For Environmental Agenda
If Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election, observers say his administration is likely to pursue an “all of the above” approach to implementing environmental policy goals, starting with executive actions on climate change and other issues followed by more-complex rulemaking and legislation.

But the scope -- and potential success -- of those efforts might depend heavily on the extent of Democrats’ control of the House and possibly the Senate following the elections for those chambers.

The former vice president’s emerging climate and environment agenda “encompasses regulation plus spending plus legislation,” says a former EPA official. “It is the new ‘all of the above’ approach.”

And promoting a clean energy infrastructure is “the answer” to both current economic recovery needs following the pandemic and to addressing climate change, the former official claims.

Hill Democrats, meanwhile, are promising a quick infrastructure push following the elections, with House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) touting plans to move such an agenda as soon as February. Separate Democratic recommendations from special House and Senate climate committees in 2020 could also form a possible basis for broader climate and energy policy.

But another former EPA official also predicts Republican resistance from lawmakers to Democratic spending proposals offered by a Biden administration. And if the GOP retains control of the Senate following the elections, it could create a significant barrier for Congress to approve key parts of a Biden environmental agenda.

Discussion of key personnel moves under a possible Biden administration is already underway, with some press reports suggesting that long-time California air regulator Mary Nichols could have an inside track to being EPA administrator:

Amid Talk Of EPA Post, CARB’s Nichols Seen Prioritizing Climate, Vehicles
Amid reports that Mary Nichols, the long-time chief of the California air board, has the inside track to be EPA administrator under a Biden administration, sources say she would bring decades of experience to a push to aggressively battle climate change and reduce transportation air pollution while reversing Trump-era rollbacks.

Discussion of Nichols as a possible contender for EPA chief has occurred for months, though speculation has increased in recent days. For example, an Oct. 20 Bloomberg report cites several people familiar with the matter as saying “the EPA job is Nichols’s if she wants it. . . . It’s not clear if she does.”

Nichols is stepping down as chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board at the end of this year after serving for 13 years.

During that tenure, the board has pursued pioneering criteria pollutant and climate regulations, and has clashed repeatedly with the Trump administration, particularly over EPA’s efforts to rescind the state’s unique Clean Air Act authority to set stricter vehicle greenhouse gas standards than the federal government.

In a statement to Bloomberg, the 75-year-old Nichols did not rule out the possibility of taking the job if it is offered to her. “Four years of Donald Trump have torn gaping holes in the fabric of this country’s environmental protection laws. Fixing this damage requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from every citizen, and I stand ready to do my part.”

Back on the campaign trail, observers are split over whether Biden’s Oct. 22 debate remarks about an oil industry “transition” will cause political damage to either his candidacy or other Democrats:

Oil Sector, GOP Allies Seek To Capitalize On Biden’s ‘Transition’ Remark
The oil sector and Trump campaign are seizing on comments by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden urging a “transition” from the industry, in an effort to make Biden’s climate change stance a liability for Democrats up and down the ballot with less than two weeks before voting ends in the Nov. 3 election.

“I would transition from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said during the Oct. 22 debate in Nashville, TN. “Because the oil industry pollutes significantly . . . it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Numerous experts suggest Biden’s remarks on the oil sector are not likely to significantly shake-up the broader contours of the presidential campaign, which has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic damage.

Yet, climate change has received unprecedented attention in the election amid growing concerns over climate risks and increasing activism on the issue particularly among Democratic constituencies.

The remarks drew quick disagreement from a pair of Democratic House members in energy-heavy districts: Reps. Kendra Horn (D-OK) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM). Other reaction came from Daniel Turner, founder of the pro-oil energy group Power the Future, arguing Biden’s remarks are “not a good message” for Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico or Colorado.

But environmentalist R.L. Miller of the group Climate Hawks Vote charged that the “shape of climate politics has changed, and the American people are ready for that just transition away from oil.”