The Next President Decides


The future of a number of projects hinges on this election. The next president will have the power to push forth on them—or reverse them altogether. Welcome to The Frontline, where every vote counts.

Photograph by Alan Kearney / Getty Images

Buckle up, yall. Election Day is here, and I am terrified.


I’m not here to tell any of you whom to vote for, but let me be clear. If you’re eligible to vote, you better be voting. I cast my early vote Sunday, an ode to my mama whose legal status keeps her from voting in one of the most monumental elections of a generation. A lot hinges on who becomes the next president of the U.S.—including a number of projects that affect the environment and the communities around them.


“The president has a lot of authority,” the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program director Athan Manuel told me. “You saw [President Barack Obama] assert himself more on these kinds of projects when Congress wasn’t dealing with them, and you saw President Trump do the same thing in the opposite direction.”


Welcome to The Frontline, another reminder to get out and vote. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. This week is all about the election, especially today. We’re looking at a number of infrastructure projects (some completed and some proposed) in today’s edition. They include the U.S.-Mexico border wall we dove deep on last week, as well as controversial oil pipelines like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access. The next president will have the power to keep them moving along—or crush them altogether.



Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last remaining wild places within the U.S. It stretches more than 19 million acres across Alaska wilderness. What’s at stake here is its coastal plain, a 1.5-million-acre piece of land near the Beaufort Sea. This is what Congress has opened up to the oil and gas industry. It’s also a sacred site for the Gwich’in Nation.


The porcupine caribou herd come here every year to calve their offspring. Due to its vast open space, the coastal plain provides shelter for these animals to raise their young. They can see predators from afar—and it’s also free of the mosquitos that often threaten their health. These caribou are a cultural icon for the Gwich’in, who rely on the animals for subsistence. Oil and gas development here could prove disastrous to the caribou and the Gwich’in.


While the Trump administration has been trying to rush the leasing process for fossil fuel companies, former Vice President Joe Biden has committed to protecting the refuge. As a Delaware senator, Biden voted in favor of protecting the refuge from fossil fuel interests at least six times.



Keystone XL Pipeline


Oh, boy—the pipeline that never dies. The future of the Keystone XL pipeline rests on a number of factors, including the economy. Still, the Canadian government is in full support of this 1,210-mile zombie pipeline as it starts there before making its way into Nebraska. In the U.S., permit approvals and lawsuits have been delaying the pipeline’s construction, but a Biden presidency could really alter its course.


That’s because President Trump steamrolled the project’s approval in 2017 when he issued a presidential permit for the pipeline. Meanwhile, Biden has promised to rescind that permit. Indigenous groups and members of tribal nations in the U.S. and Canada have been at the forefront of this opposition. However, some Canadian First Nations are working with project developers to become formal partners of Keystone XL.



Dakota Access Pipeline


This is another major pipeline on the ballot this election. Trump also used special presidential power to push through the Dakota Access pipeline. While Biden has not come out in direct opposition to the Dakota Access, it’s likely that environmental advocates will be laying the pressure on him to take action against this 1,172-mile project, too.


The future of the controversial oil pipeline is in the courts at the moment where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been trying to secure the pipeline’s death. They came really close in July when a judge ordered the pipeline to be shut down. If Biden wins the White House, he could order the pipeline to cease operation while the court process plays out, reports E&E News.


If Biden is serious about reducing greenhouse gases, he’ll do just that and ultimately revoke the permit Trump gave it altogether.



Pebble Mine


The Pebble Mine project is a proposed copper, gold, and molybdenum mine in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska. Here, the fishing community is vibrant. In 2018, the salmon run broke records, raking in $281 million across salmon species. So you can imagine the concern some locals have over a pit thousands of feet wide.


Advocates worry the development would harm the salmon in the area, along with sites of cultural significance to Alaska Natives. Construction would involve filling in wetlands and building out roads, which is extremely disruptive to the ecosystem—and that’s all before the actual mining begins.


Anyway, Biden has vowed to block the mine if he wins, but even some in Trump’s wing have been speaking out against it… including his son. In August, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his opposition to the project out of his love for the area’s wilderness. Who knows? Maybe this project is doomed either way.



Bears Ears National Monument


President Obama made history when he formalized the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. This was the first time a monument had been established in coordination with tribal nations. It was the first time these nations came together for a monument proclamation. It was historic.


Then, Trump came in and shrunk the monument by over 80 percent. Biden has said he’d reverse this move by the Trump administration upon taking office. That would mean honoring sacred lands for tribal nations across the region—as well as protecting public lands for all Americans. Otherwise, the area will likely become even more enmeshed with the uranium industry, which was a big proponent for the restructuring of the monument, per a New York Times investigation.



The Border Wall


As I mentioned in an earlier edition last week, a Biden presidency could mean the border wall construction ends in its entirety. In fact, a Biden presidency is advocates’ real hope in stopping any more construction along the U.S.-Mexico border wall. There is a number of legal challenges to the project, but the courts are looking less friendly—especially after the Supreme Court added Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the bench.


The border wall threatens the future of more than 90 endangered and threatened species, as well as the cultures and well-being of the people who live near the border. The Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program has identified this project as among their top priorities, Manuel said. That’s because it’s a horrific symbol. Unfortunately, it’s also among the president’s most-cherished projects.



Tongass National Forest


Last week, the Trump administration opened up 16.7 million acres of the Tongass National Forest to logging interests. For those of you who may not be aware, this forest stores eight percent of all the carbon the U.S. holds in its forests. These are old-ass trees, so they’re much better at sucking carbon out of our atmosphere than younger ones. The forest is also home to the grizzly bear and bald eagles.


Logging won’t only harm the wildlife; it can cause irreparable damage to efforts to combat climate change. Biden hasn’t expressed any plans for how to move forward on this, but he’d hold the power to reverse this decision should he win. He’s been clear in his climate plan that forests are an essential part of addressing the climate crisis, so he’d be a fool to let this national treasure sully.


We can’t fully know what’ll happen with the future of these projects until we know who wins. Even then, we’ll have to wait and see if Trump or Biden carries out on their word.

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