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How Will the Biden Environmental Policy Affect the EHS Function?

If you’re an EHS professional, we expect you’ve heard about some of the environmental policy changes happening in Washington. The Biden-Harris administration’s initiatives will have a big impact on the way EHS professionals approach their work and their role within their organizations. No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, understanding the new administration's environmental policy will be essential to strategic planning in 2021 and beyond. 

So, what exactly is the 46th President’s environmental platform? And what will it mean for EHS departments specifically? Let’s take a closer look. 

What is the Biden-Harris environmental policy?

The Biden-Harris administration has laid out an ambitious plan to tackle climate change. The plan includes

  • Ensuring the U.S. achieves 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050;
  • Building a more resilient nation through infrastructure investments, including strengthening the electric grid and water infrastructure;
  • Rallying the rest of the world to meet the threat of climate change — starting with rejoining the Paris Agreement;
  • Taking action against polluters who disproportionately harm vulnerable communities; and
  • Supporting workers and communities impacted by the energy transition.

To that end, President Biden signed a number of executive orders on his first day in office, including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and placing a temporary moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

These executive orders and other actions will have significant implications for U.S. businesses — and their EHS departments. 

What impact will the Biden environmental policy have on EHS?


1. More regulatory oversight

Under the previous administration, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspections fell to a 10-year low. According to data released by the agency, the EPA inspected 10,600 industrial facilities in 2018 — about half the number conducted in 2010. The total amount of federal administrative and civil judicial penalties assessed also hit its lowest number since 1994 at $69 million. 

Based on President Biden’s campaign promises and actions since taking office, that’s all about to change. The new administration is prioritizing the environment and climate change, so naturally enforcement is expected to increase. Businesses can expect to see an increase in the presence of federal regulators and, as a result, more penalties and fines. 

For organizations to succeed, they’re going to have to focus even more on environmental compliance. This will mean a greater burden on EHS to keep up with new regulations and show compliance. However, it will also likely mean more transparency and predictability around regulations. 

2. Greater emphasis on managing climate-related operational risks

Along with more regulatory oversight, there will also be a greater emphasis on climate risk management under the new administration. This means looking beyond complying with rules, and asking questions about what might happen in the future. For example, how might the withdrawal of fossil fuel subsidies affect energy and operational costs?

The good news is that these two initiatives — compliance and risk management — go hand in hand. When companies focus on proactively identifying and managing risks, meeting compliance minimums will be much easier. 

While most large enterprises have already put voluntary climate targets like net-zero targets into place, some smaller companies have been holding off until it’s required. This means that smaller companies that don’t have the technologies and resources in place will have to work twice as hard to catch up. 

3. EHS will become more visible

As a result of these changes, the role of EHS manager will be more important than ever. Once viewed as a wrench in the business engine, EHS&S now enjoys considerable attention from the C-suite. 

At many organizations, for example, sustainability professionals already report directly to the executive team. NAEM found that one in four sustainability professionals reported to the CEO in 2020, compared to one in ten just four years earlier. Soon, the title of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) may be as commonplace as CIO or CCO. 

Not only will they play a role in ensuring compliance with new and existing regulations, environmental professionals are poised to become a strategic consultant as businesses seek to seize new opportunities to reduce costs and improve operational efficiencies. 

4. More funding for EHS departments and their initiatives

Following suit, this increased visibility will also mean more budget funding for environmental programs and initiatives — a welcome change for cash-strapped EHS departments. 

With additional funding, environmental departments will be able to try out innovative, value-added initiatives that would normally be a hard sell. This includes analytics tools and automation that can increase productivity, boost performance, and reduce risk. Already, we’re seeing an uptick in companies investing in environmental data management platforms to collect, manage, and extract actionable insights from their environmental data. It seems even CFOs are beginning to realize the financial and operational benefits solutions like these can bring. 

Your turn

The Biden-Harris environmental policy will force many organizations to rethink how they approach environmental compliance and climate-related risks, but it’s also a huge opportunity for EHS to take on a more prominent role in their organization (and the funding that comes with it). 

It's not all sunshine and roses, of course. Federal policies are changing quickly, and EHS departments are still woefully understaffed. This is why environmental management software is quickly becoming one of the most valuable assets your business can own. Only a modern environmental management system will enable organizations to keep up with the pace of change expected under the new administration. 

Now over to you: What changes are you seeing in the industry under the new administration? And how is your organization preparing for what’s ahead?

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