President Biden's Executive Orders On Climate Change : Consider This from NPR This past week, President Biden signed executive orders that represent his administration's first actions in the fight against climate change. Some changes will take longer than others — and many more will not be possible without help from Congress.

Correspondent Lauren Sommer of NPR's climate team explains the likelihood of that happening — and what Biden could do if it doesn't.

NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Wyoming on Biden's ban on federal oil and gas leasing. Most of the oil and gas drilled in Wyoming comes from federal land and communities there are bracing for job losses and school funding cuts.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at
NPR logo

After Biden's First Actions On Climate Change, How Much More Can He Do Alone?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
After Biden's First Actions On Climate Change, How Much More Can He Do Alone?

After Biden's First Actions On Climate Change, How Much More Can He Do Alone?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's an issue President Joe Biden has called the existential threat of our time.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In my view, we've already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can't wait any longer. And we see it with our own eyes. We feel it. We know it in our bones.

CORNISH: This past week at the White House, Biden signed a pile of executive orders on climate change. He ordered the Interior Department to meet specific goals for conservation and green energy production, he ordered the director of National Intelligence to produce reports on the security risks of climate change, and he ordered a pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands and in public waters.


GINA MCCARTHY: What we're trying to do is make a concerted effort to build infrastructure that makes it available to make all kinds of shifts to clean energy because clean energy really is the future.

CORNISH: Biden's chief adviser on climate, former EPA head Gina McCarthy, spoke to NPR the day Biden signed those orders.


MCCARTHY: This is our ability to actually make the promises that President Biden made on the campaign trail and put them into action.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - Joe Biden has taken the first steps toward a huge goal to dramatically reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. But that will be impossible to achieve through executive orders alone.


CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, February 1.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. So a few takeaways and a few caveats on what Joe Biden did - first, pausing federal leases on oil and gas drilling is a big deal. Fossil fuel production on federal lands accounts for about a quarter of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions. But Biden's order doesn't automatically end all that production. It just prevents new leases for oil and gas from being issued. And his order doesn't change anything about coal production on federal lands, also a big source of greenhouse gas emissions.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is this administration's policy when it comes to coal?

MCCARTHY: Well, in terms of the oil and gas decision, it was to - is to make sure that we take a little pause and review.

CORNISH: At a White House press briefing last week, climate adviser Gina McCarthy said coal production might be addressed in the future, but basically, it wasn't something Biden promised to do during his campaign.


MCCARTHY: So it will be in the mix to be looked at. But it is not, at this point, included. It was not part of the commitments on the campaign, but we're going to take a close look at all of it.

CORNISH: So while the president could possibly do more, there's also a lot he cannot do, at least not on his own, which is why he's asking Congress to pass a $2 trillion climate change plan.


JOHN KERRY: Yes, it's a lot of money. But you know what? It costs a lot more if you don't do the things we need to do.

CORNISH: John Kerry, the president's chief climate envoy, spoke to reporters last week. He laid out the administration's argument, which boils down to this. Either the U.S. spends money now to reduce emissions and boost clean energy and rebuild infrastructure, or it spends a lot more money in the future.


KERRY: We spent $265 billion two years ago on three storms, Irma, Harvey and Maria. Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. Harvey dropped more water on Houston in five days than goes over Niagara Falls in a year. And Irma had the first recorded winds at 185 miles an hour for 24 sustained hours. So we're spending the money, folks. We're just not doing it smart. We're not doing it in a way that would actually sustain us.

CORNISH: Kerry also noted the Bush administration's move to rejoin the Paris climate agreement but said pretty bluntly that the goals laid out in that agreement aren't enough.


KERRY: The goal of the Paris agreement was to hold the Earth's temperature increase to 2 degrees centigrade. Even if you did everything that was in Paris, we're going up 3.7 or 4. That's catastrophic. What President Biden is trying to do is listen to science...

CORNISH: The Biden administration will announce even more aggressive action later this year.


CORNISH: There's a wonky term members of the Biden administration like to throw around when they talk about action on climate change. They call it a whole-of-government approach. Correspondent Lauren Sommer of NPR's climate team has been looking at what that means and why Biden may not be able to do everything he wants without help from Congress. She spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro.


LAUREN SOMMER: So it was a really broad range of things they announced. I mean, there's climate change initiatives in the Treasury Department and the National Security Council. It's this idea that climate change really reaches every aspect of our lives. I think the question is whether this administration can cut emissions fast enough because the science shows, you know, the next 10 years are crucial for slowing warming. The goal is to keep it to 1.5 degrees Celsius because even half a degree more of warming means more extreme impacts - things like sea-level storms, fires.

ARI SHAPIRO: And one of the things that the Biden administration wants to do to reach those goals is reverse the environmental rollbacks that the Trump administration took - put in place. How long is that likely to take?

SOMMER: Yeah. It can take years, and that's going to be true for some really key policies here, like cars and trucks. Transportation is the country's largest source of emissions. And, you know, instead of gradually increasing their efficiency, the Trump administration relaxed those standards. But for the Biden administration, the federal agencies have to do a very thorough process of writing new rules, and that'll take years. And then if it's challenged in court, that'll take years.

SHAPIRO: So, as you said, there's a ticking clock here. I mean, does all of this mean that the climate goals the administration has set are out of reach and we're going to bust this 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius goal?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, I think it means that the Biden administration is going to have to move faster on climate than really has ever been done. I mean, some of their own numbers say that they need to speed up the adoption of electric cars 22 times faster. Renewable energy would need to be six times faster. What's working in their favor is that some of these trends are already happening. Renewable energy is more affordable, and coal plants are closing around the country just for economic reasons. So the Biden administration is going to look to speed that process up. And that, you know, as we talked about, is going to probably need to involve Congress.

SHAPIRO: I mean, with the Democrats' thin, thin margin, is there any chance a major climate bill would actually pass?

SOMMER: Yeah. It would certainly going to be a huge challenge. I asked Greg Dotson about that, who worked on energy policy in the House of Representatives for more than a decade.

GREG DOTSON: There's a lot of acrimony that you can see in Congress. And where we're sitting right now, it's probably hard to see a big bipartisan bill on climate change. But I don't think that means you stop trying in Congress. And maybe it's tax policy. Maybe it's investment decisions. Maybe it's, you know, budgetary issues.

SOMMER: Yeah. He's saying that, you know, instead of maybe one banner climate bill, that Congress can kind of embed climate spending in other bills. But, you know, of course, the question is, will emissions drop fast enough just by doing that? - because, you know, it's important to say, even when the Obama administration left office, the U.S. wasn't on a path to meet its international climate targets. So now, you know, four years later, Biden is just going to have to be much more ambitious than Obama was.

CORNISH: Lauren Sommer - she's with NPR's climate team.


CORNISH: So back to that order from President Biden to pause oil and gas leasing on public lands and in public waters - while it won't stop fossil fuel production that's already underway in those places, it will cut off future oil and gas production in the short term. And a lot of state and local governments, especially in the rural West, see that as a problem. For them, fossil fuel production is a big source of revenue, and it's already been slowing down. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from a gas field near Pinedale, Wyo.


KIRK SIEGLER: After 15 years working in the oil patch, Antonio Magana finally struck out on his own, starting a small oil and gas servicing company. Then the pandemic hit, demand tanked, and production ground nearly to a halt here in Wyoming's Jonah Field.

ANTONIO MAGANA: Right now it's not much going on. You know, we've been working little hours. A lot of people lost their jobs, like, a month ago - like, a lot of people.

SIEGLER: The Jonah was once one of the country's most prolific public lands gasfields. Locals boast proudly that this is where modern-day fracking was born. A few years ago this truck stop would have been humming. Today a lone is semi is gassing up.


SIEGLER: The cafe is deserted. A frozen sign in the snow advertises a move-in special at the vacant motel. Even before the pandemic, there was a glut in natural gas on the market, so companies were scaling back. And now with the Biden administration's pause on new leases on federal ground like this, Magana is worried that companies won't need contractors like him.

MAGANA: Well, I hope they continue producing gas, you know, because we need gas for heating and everything. And people need to work, especially here in Wyoming.

SIEGLER: While only 10% of the nation's oil and gas comes off federal land in Wyoming, it's hugely flipflopped. Ninety percent of all the natural gas here is mined with leases from underneath public land. The state has already shed an estimated 6,000 mining jobs in the past year. A recent University of Wyoming study forecasted that a federal leasing moratorium could cost local governments $300 million a year.

JOEL BOUSMAN: We're looking at schools with no kids in them, empty classrooms, teachers that don't have jobs because you can't hire teachers if you don't have kids to teach.

SIEGLER: Joel Bousman is a commissioner in Sublette County. Almost all of its budget comes from taxes off the Jonah Field. He says President Biden's climate plan ignores communities like his.

BOUSMAN: We're worried about total devastation of our economy in this county if this is truly an indication of the direction he wants to go, which he has said it is.

SIEGLER: But some here will tell you Wyoming has had years to prepare for the eventuality of fossil fuels going away, and little has been done. Linda Baker is a longtime environmental activist in Pinedale, a town of 2,000 once infamous for its brown cloud from drilling obscuring the Wind River mountains. She says blame toward the feds is misguided. It's the companies, she says, that overproduced.

LINDA BAKER: You know, it's uneconomical to drill right now. So, you know, oil and gas will cry bloody murder. But right now they're not drilling because they can't afford to.

SIEGLER: Environmentalists are also quick to point out that most of the Jonah Field is already leased, and many companies in Western states are holding on to their existing leases and not even developing them. There were 21 drilling rigs statewide a year ago. Now there's only six. Even before the abrupt change in federal policy, trucker Jake Dennis says he started moving his business away from the oil patch.

JAKE DENNIS: There ain't nothing to do. I mean, we could go over the road, but all you're doing is paying for fuel and a driver. But you can't even keep enough to keep the trucks going.

SIEGLER: He's down to only three truckers from a high of 10 a year ago. They're switching gears to logging. There's still some work doing thinning and wildfire prevention for the U.S. Forest Service.


CORNISH: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler.


CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.