WASHINGTON — 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 head of the chemistry department said her staff could not keep up with the increasing workload. The enforcement force is prosecuting fewer polluters than at any time in the last two decades.
And now this: a stressed, stretched, thin Environmental Protection Agency is scrambling to write about half a dozen very complex rules and regulations that are central to President Biden’s climate goals.
The new rules must 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 months behind the EPA’s self-imposed deadlines, raising concerns from supporters in Congress and environmental groups. “It’s very fair to say we’re 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.
Both the agency and its critics say the EPA’s staff has thinned, and the workload has only increased.
Career employees are “worked to death,” said Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA scientist. “They are under the most pressure they have ever been.
Biden administration officials insist the agency has delivered more environmental protections than any previous presidency and has introduced 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 threats.
Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan has promised that the new regulations, now being drafted by his staff, will be published by spring. Agency officials said the EPA has stepped up its recruiting efforts and purchased software to help the agency identify more potential job applicants, particularly from universities.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
- Soot Limits: Biden administration suggested tightening the limits to the deadly air pollutant also known as soot, which is responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year.
- Hunting tactics: National Park Service moves to ban hunters on some public lands in Alaska from baiting black bears with donuts and invading wolf dens to kill cubs.
- Wind power: The United States will need thousands of wind farms to meet President Biden’s ambitious climate goals. Rural counties have land, but they will go together?
- Postal cars: In a win for the Biden administration, the U.S. Postal Service said it will spend nearly $10 billion to create one of the largest fleets of electric trucks in the country.
“The agency is moving further and faster than ever before,” Dan Utech, Mr. Regan’s chief of staff, said in a statement. He added that the achievements came “despite a depleted staff, persistent funding problems and a previous administration that left the agency neglected and scientifically compromised.”
The EPA finds itself at an unusual moment. The Infrastructure Act of 2021 and the Climate Act passed last year began pumping $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 states to buy low-emission school buses and $3 billion to reduce pollution in ports. For the first time, the EPA has “a little money to walk around,” Mr. Regan joked to staff at a recent meeting.
But experts said they fear the EPA’s regulatory and enforcement work is taking a backseat to the grantmaking.
“The EPA is a regulatory agency, and I’m concerned that the huge piles of money they now have to administer and manage could end up obscuring the regulatory work the statues say they have to do,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. watchdog group.
And time is running out.
Mr. Biden wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by about half this decade to avoid the most severe climate fluctuations. Analysts say that even with the new climate law, the president cannot achieve his goal without new regulations designed to reduce carbon dioxide and other pollutants from power plants, cars and trucks.
The process from draft regulation to enactment can take months, and the current delay could mean some rules won’t be finalized until next year. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can overturn any regulation within 60 legislative days of its completion by a simple majority vote. So any final rule issued in late 2024 could be overturned by Republicans if they retain control of the House and pick up seats in the Senate in the November 2024 elections.
Additionally, the Biden administration’s climate rules are likely to face legal challenges. If a new administration is elected in 2024, it may choose not to defend the rules in court.
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Recent certificate of Evergreen, an environmental group, found that the EPA is behind its own deadlines on nine key environmental regulations, including limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic substances from power plants, ozone standards and restrictions on coal ash storage to prevent spills and contamination. Most troubling, climate advocates said, the agency has yet to propose rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new gas-fired plants and existing coal and gas-fired plants — measures that energy analysts say will be necessary to phase out fossil fuels for electricity. sector by 2035, as Mr. Biden has pledged to do.
In a recent interview, Mr. Regan said the agency was rethinking its plans to regulate the industry in light of the new climate law. He said the millions of dollars now available to make it cheaper and easier for utilities and automakers to shift away from fossil fuels have led the agency to consider whether it might impose stricter emissions targets than originally planned. This would move the energy and transportation industries away from fossil fuels even faster. He said the legal and economic case for such regulations will take time to develop, but is nearing completion.
“This spring you will see a number of actions taken by the EPA,” Mr. Regan said.
Despite billions dedicated to climate programs, the EPA remains underfunded and understaffed for its other responsibilities, including enforcing environmental laws and evaluating chemicals to ensure they do not pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.
The nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project recently found that federal environmental enforcement has slipped under Mr. Biden. EPA civil cases against polluters hit a two-decade low in 2022, with 72 such cases settled in court. That’s fewer than under the Trump administration, which has opposed industry restrictions yet closed an average of 94 enforcement cases a year. The Obama administration averaged 210 per year, reporting found. EPA officials said they are focusing on protecting heavily polluted communities by increasing inspections and targeting the most serious violations.
EPA-regulated industries are also frustrated that the agency is taking too long to determine whether new and existing chemicals pose an unreasonable risk to the environment or human health.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents companies such as Dow, Dupont and ExxonMobil Chemical, is frustrated by “constant delays and a lack of transparency in how resources are deployed,” according to a statement from Kimberly Wise White, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs. at the business group.
Michal Freedhoff, who heads the EPA’s chemical unit, he told Congress recently that the Chemical Safety Agency would fail to meet its obligations and miss many “significant statutory deadlines”. She blamed the fact that after a 2016 law greatly increased the agency’s responsibilities, the EPA under the Trump administration never sought the resources from Congress necessary to do the job.
In fact, Mr. Trump has sought to cut the EPA budget by at least 30 percent every year. Highly qualified scientists and other experts left the agency as the Trump administration dismantled scientific advisory panels, ignored scientific evidence and weakened protections against pollution.
“They beat the EPA workforce, a lot of people were left upset,” said Sen. Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA.
As a result, the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety is far behind, Ms. Freedhoff told Congress. Attracting and retaining staff has been difficult because of the heavy workload, she said.
Mr. Carper said he was “impatient,” especially with regulatory delays, and expressed this to Mr. Regan personally.
The EPA is hiring, increasing its payroll by 3 percent in the past two years to 14,844 employees. However, this increased the total number of employees slightly more than when Ronald Reagan was president.
EPA staffing peaked in 2004 under George W. Bush at 17,611 employees, according to the agency. Those levels have ebbed and flowed slightly, but began to take a steep decline during the Obama administration amid Republican control of the House and Senate.
When Mr. Trump entered the White House, the EPA had 15,408 employees. The following year, it fell to 14,172 employees, a level that was more or less stable until the Biden administration.
Just last month, the agency received its first major budget increase in years, an additional $576 million for enforcement and compliance, as well as clean air, water and toxic chemicals programs.
Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to make government more efficient, said the EPA faces “the next hurdle” in meeting the long list of rules that Mr. Biden has promised to expand. to ensure that the money from the new climate law is spent effectively.
“You’ve got an organization that was initially traumatized at some level, faced with difficulties built up over many, many years of divestment, and now you have a new set of requirements that will require new capabilities,” he said. “They’re going to have to build their strength, and that’s not going to happen overnight.