Year in review: environmental victories in 2021

A new presidential administration opened the way for more national action by Environment America. At the same time, state partners continued to make progress across the country
For Immediate Release

DENVER -- Environment America and its state partners made important headway on a broad range of environmental issues in 2021 – from protecting wild spaces and our drinking water to speeding our transition to clean energy and reforming our transportation system. President Joe Biden’s first year in office featured increased action at the national level with the passage of The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and some strong environmental protection measures from federal agencies. At the state level, leaders made a multitude of important policy decisions, including commitments to 100% clean energy and bans on single-use plastics and foam containers.

“Between the landmark bipartisan infrastructure bill and several key rollbacks of misguided policies, we made clear progress in 2021 toward improving the health of our planet and those who live on it,” said Wendy Wendlandt, president of Environment America, a nonpartisan national advocacy group. “But we haven’t accomplished everything we should -- or can. It’s time to capitalize on our momentum on issues from conservation to transportation, and ‘Build Back Better’ or not, pass legislation that will give us a fighting chance to avert the worst impacts of climate change.”

Here is a list of 2021 national and state-level environmental highlights, including work done by Environment America and its state-based partners from coast to coast:
 

Our staff rallied support to help win the Clean Power Plan. Photo credit: staff

Global warming solutions

Before Joe Biden took office, Environment America was among the loud chorus calling on the United States to rejoin the international Paris Agreement. Not only did his administration officially do it, but on Earth Day, President Biden also pledged to reduce global warming emissions 50 percent by 2030 to help meet the goals of the Paris accord.

That was just a start. Several victories could provide solutions to our problematic transportation sector, which is the country’s number one source of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Environment America supported, includes the largest-ever federal investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure ($7.5 billion) and funding for thousands of clean electric school buses and low- and zero-emission transit buses. President Biden also issued an executive order directing the federal government to purchase 100% zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2035 for its fleet of over 600,000 cars and trucks.

In addition, the EPA proposed the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, which will decrease methane emissions by 41 million tons through 2035. That’s the equivalent of taking more than 200 million cars off the road for a year. The EPA finalized a federal clean cars rule, which will result in more than 3.1 billion tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions through 2050, which is the equivalent to more than half of net U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. Electrify America, funded by Volkswagen as punishment for its emissions cheating scandal, announced that it would more than double its network of electric vehicle charging stations by 2025. Already the largest fast-charging network in the United States, the company will operate more than 1,800 fast chargers and 10,000 individual charging stations across nearly all 50 states following the expansion.

The road to cleaner transportation sped forward in several states, too. Virginia, Minnesota, Nevada and Washington all adopted the advanced clean cars program in 2021. Now, 17 states boast the low-emission vehicle (LEV) program and 15 have the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) program. In Massachusetts, all new cars sold must be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. Environment Texas, along with its partner organization TexPIRG, successfully pressed for Houston’s transit agency to commit to all zero emissions buses by 2030. Austin’s transit agency also announced it would purchase 197 new electric buses over the next five years for Austin’s public fleets, one of the largest electric vehicle purchases ever made in the United States. 

Elsewhere, Colorado passed legislation to install EV recharging stations in state parks; Oregon passed a bill extending tax credits for electric vehicles; and, in California, the state earmarked $1.4 Billion for zero emission transportation and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring 100% ZEV sales by 2035.

When it came to climate solutions, states didn’t stop with transportation policies. California banned any new fracking by no later than 2024 and called for an end to oil production by 2045. And, in New Jersey, Gov. Tom Murphy issued an executive order to cut climate pollutants in half by 2030.

Staff deliver more than 2 million petitions urging the Dept. of the Interior to protect public lands. Photo credit: Jenny Nordstrom

Conservation

On inauguration day, President Joe Biden announced his America the Beautiful initiative, which aims to protect 30% of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030. Since then, the federal government has taken numerous tangible actions advocated by Environment America to preserve our wild spaces and animals. They included restoring three key national monuments that had been stripped of protections by the Trump administration – Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts – and beginning the process of reestablishing safeguards for the Tongass National Forest. In addition, the administration fixed a series of Trump-era rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act that threatened the future of animals on the brink of disappearing. Also, federal regulators made strides toward creating Chumash Heritage National Marine Monument, which will be vital for sea life off the Northern California coast.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act delivered a number of key conservation provisions. The bipartisan infrastructure bill-turned-law provides $350 million for wildlife highway crossings, which will make it safer for species to reconnect, replenish and avoid some of the dangers of human encroachment. At the state level, Florida recognized the importance of these connectors when it passed the Florida Wildlife Corridors Act. That law allocates $300 million of federal stimulus money to build wildlife corridors in priority areas of the state. 

Along with wildlife crossings, the infrastructure bill also allocated $2 million per year for pollinator habitats along roadways, which will offer a boost to these creatures that may be tiny but have an essential impact on the food chain. Our support for bees didn’t end there. Maine passed the toughest state-level "save the bees" law to limit bee-killing neonics following tremendous support from Environment Maine. Massachusetts also took steps to save bees by adopting new rules that banned the retail sale of neonicotinoids, a common, dangerous toxin for the pollinators.

Pennsylvania rally for clean energy. Photo credit: Brenda Nguyen Photography

Clean Energy

As we’ve seen over and over again in recent years, state leadership once again proved crucial in America’s transition to clean and renewable energy in 2021. Notably, two states -- Oregon and Illinois -- enacted 100% clean electricity commitments in 2021, bringing the nationwide total up to nine states that have set concrete timeliness to transition . 

In addition, Massachusetts passed a climate bill that will reduce energy waste and ensure that at least 40% of its electricity comes from renewable sources by 2030. California announced it will require solar panels and battery storage of the energy those panels generate for new commercial buildings and high-rise multifamily dwellings, complementing its existing solar requirements for new single-family homes and multifamily homes up to three stories. And, in March, Pennsylvania made the nation’s largest governmental solar commitment to date. The initiative will supply nearly 50% of the state government’s electricity through seven new solar arrays. 

When it comes to renewable energy generation, several states made strides with offshore wind. Maine’s state legislature kickstarted the development of a new offshore wind research array with an eye toward tapping its immense potential. Nearby, New Jersey passed a bill that will help offshore wind and related transmission projects move forward in a timely manner and approved 2,658 megawatts (MW) of new offshore wind capacity off the Jersey Shore. That’s enough new clean energy to power more than 1 million New Jersey homes. As part of its climate bill, Massachusetts bumped up its commitment to offshore wind power by an additional 2,400 MW to 5,600 MW by 2027, or enough to power roughly 2.8 million homes. And California passed a bill that will direct state regulators to set an offshore wind target for the Golden State and come up with a plan for the development of the first utility-scale offshore wind projects off the West Coast.

At the federal level, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will aid America’s transition to using clean energy sources by cutting energy waste, modernizing the electrical grid to improve resiliency, and upgrading transmission lines.

Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. Photo credit: Denbow

Clean water

Our long-running campaign to “Get the Lead Out” of our drinking water earned hard-fought victories at both the national and state levels. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $15 billion to replace lead service lines and $200 million for schools to get the lead out of their drinking water. In December, the White House unveiled the Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan to prevent the lead contamination of drinking water (and reduce other exposures to lead). It features unprecedented federal funding and a commitment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “to propose requirements that, along with other actions, would replace all lead service lines as quickly as feasible.” More broadly, the plan includes 15 actions across 10 federal agencies, allocations of relevant federal funding, and a cabinet-level partnership to reduce lead in child care centers and schools. 

In Washington state, following a three-year campaign by Environment Washington, the state legislature passed a law, named after our former state director, Bruce Speight, who tragically passed away from cancer in 2019, that sets important limits on lead in school drinking water. Similar bills in New York and Maryland also became law in 2020. Meanwhile, New Jersey became the first state to heed our call for requiring replacement of all lead service lines within 10 years, when the legislature approved an Environment New Jersey-backed bill. Out west, Environment California and its allies convinced the state to adopt precedent-setting limits on lead in new faucets, fountains and water bottle stations. 

Other national victories in this space include winning increased federal funding for water infrastructure in the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill. This will curb sewage overflows and runoff pollution. A repeal of the Trump administration’s ”Dirty Water Rule,” which threatened clean waters across the country, was also a big win. Beyond that, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) committed to establishing new limits on the discharge of PFAS into our rivers and streams. 

Capping a nearly decade-long effort by PennEnvironment, Environment New Jersey and other allies, a substantial environmental victory occurred when the Delaware River Basin Commission decided to permanently ban fracking in the river basin. Also in Pennsylvania: PennEnvironment, along with other plaintiffs, settled a nine-year-long Clean Water Act lawsuit against PPG. As a result, the company will be required to have a pollution permit, treat its water for the first time and contribute $250,000 to a Pennsylvania nonprofit water research center.

 

Environment Maine State Director Anya Fetcher (fourth from the left) with Gov. Janet Mills as she signed into law a measure to establish the Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging program. Photo credit: staff

Wildlife over waste

A wide array of Americans took considerable action in 2021 to prioritize wildlife over waste and solve how we needlessly use plastics, foam and other packaging for mere moments but then pollute our land and seas for centuries with this trash.

Maine passed a first-in-the nation bill that makes producers responsible for the full life cycle of their packaging. Virginia passed a statewide ban on single-use foam cups and take-out containers as well as a ban on intentional balloon releases. Gov. Ralph Northam also issued an executive order phasing out all single-use plastics in state agencies as well as at public colleges and universities. In Georgia, Savannah enacted a city ordinance phasing out municipal single-use plastics. Colorado banned plastic bags and foam cups.

On the West Coast, Washington passed the strongest polystyrene foam ban in the country, and Oregon both announced reforms to its recycling system and established the country's second “producer responsibility” program, requiring manufacturers to bear the financial burden for packaging and paper products, following strong support from Environment Oregon.