Depleted under Trump, a ‘traumatized’ EPA struggles with its mission
A coal-fired power station in Euharlee, Ga., Oct. 19, 2022. Climate advocates say the EPA
has yet to propose rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new gas-fired power plants
and existing coal and gas plants.
By LISA FRIEDMAN
The nation’s top environmental agency is still reeling from the exodus of more than 1,200 scientists and policy experts during the Trump administration. The chemicals chief said her staff can’t keep up with a mounting workload. The enforcement unit is prosecuting fewer polluters than at any time in the past two decades.
And now this: The stressed-out, stretched-thin Environmental Protection Agency is scrambling to write about a half-dozen highly complex rules and regulations that are central to President Joe Biden’s climate goals.
The new rules have to be enacted within the next 18 months — lightning speed in the regulatory world — or they could be overturned by a new Congress or administration.
The regulations are already delayed months past EPA’s own self-imposed deadlines, raising concerns from supporters in Congress and environmental groups. “It’s very fair to say we are not where we hoped we’d be,” said Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents most state and local air regulators.
As staffing at the EPA thinned out, the workload only increased, both the agency and its critics say.
Career employees are being “worked to death,” said Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA scientist. “They’re under the greatest pressure they’ve ever been.”
Biden administration officials insist the agency has delivered more environmental protections than any previous presidency and listed dozens of new policies, including the creation of a high-level office focused for the first time on addressing racial disparities when it comes to environmental hazards.
The agency’s administrator, Michael S. Regan, has promised that new regulations being written by his staff now will be made public by spring. Agency officials said that the EPA has stepped up its recruitment efforts and has purchased software that has helped it identify more potential job candidates, particularly from universities.
“The agency is moving further and faster than ever before,” Dan Utech, Regan’s chief of staff, said in a statement. He added that accomplishments had come “despite depleted staffing levels, persistent funding challenges and a previous administration that left the agency neglected and scientifically compromised.”
The EPA is at an unusual juncture. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and the climate law enacted last year have begun to pump $90 billion into the agency over the next 10 years for climate projects such as $1.5 billion for new technologies to monitor and reduce methane emissions from oil and gas wells, $5 billion for states to purchase low-emission school buses, and $3 billion to cut pollution at ports. For the first time the EPA has “a little bit of walking-around money,” Regan joked to staff at a recent meeting.
But experts said they worry the EPA’s regulatory and enforcement work is taking a back seat to issuing grants.
“EPA is a regulatory agency, and I worry the huge piles of money they now have to administer and manage could end up obscuring the regulatory work the statutes say they have to do,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group.
A recent report card from Evergreen, an environmental group, found the EPA was behind its own deadlines on nine key environmental regulations, including limits on power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic substances, ozone standards, and curtailing the storage of coal ash to avoid spills and contamination. Most worrisome, climate advocates said, is that the agency has yet to propose rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new gas-fired power plants and existing coal and gas plants — measures that energy analysts say will be necessary to eliminate fossil fuels from the electricity sector by 2035 as Biden has pledged to do.
In a recent interview, Regan said his agency has recently been reassessing its regulatory plans. The millions of dollars now available through the climate law to make it cheaper and easier for utilities and automobile manufacturers to move away from fossil fuels has led the agency to consider whether it could impose more stringent emissions goals than initially conceived, he said. That would move the power and transportation sectors of the economy even faster away from fossil fuels. He said developing the legal and economic justification for such regulations would take time but was nearing completion.
“This spring, you’re going to see a number of actions taken by EPA,” Regan said.
Despite the billions earmarked for climate programs, EPA remains underfunded and understaffed when it comes to its other obligations, including enforcing environmental laws and evaluating chemicals to ensure they don’t pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.
Michal Freedhoff, who leads the EPA’s chemical unit, told Congress recently that the office of chemical safety would fall short of its obligations and miss many “significant statutory deadlines.” She blamed the fact that after a 2016 law significantly increased the agency’s duties, the EPA under the Trump administration never sought the resources from Congress that were required to perform the work.
In fact, former President Donald Trump tried each year to slash the EPA budget by at least 30%. Highly skilled scientists and other experts left the agency as the Trump administration dismantled science advisory panels, disregarded scientific evidence and weakened protections against pollution.
“They beat down the EPA workforce; a lot of people left dispirited,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which oversees the EPA.
Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to make government more effective, said the EPA faced a “consequential hurdle” to both accomplishing the long list of rules that Biden has promised and to expanding further to make sure money from the new climate law gets spent effectively.
“You have an organization that was at some level traumatized to begin with, that was facing difficulties created over many, many years of divestment, and now you have a new set of requirements that are going to call for new capabilities,” he said. “They’re going to have to build up their strength, and that does not happen overnight.”