Environmental advocates, generally strong supporters of the Biden administration, are expressing frustration at what they describe as too-lengthy delays for important regulations.
Their frustration follows the administration’s recent release of its semiannual regulatory agenda, which pushed back timelines for a range of rules governing planet-warming emissions and other pollution coming from power plants, drinking water limits for toxic chemicals and stipulations for fossil fuel leasing on public lands.
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 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 E.P.A.’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 E.P.A. thinned out, the workload only increased, both the agency and its critics say.
Wildfires cause dangerous flames, inescapable gray soot, and clouds of smoke that can travel hundreds of miles. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from everything burned by fire, including vegetation, buildings, and other materials. Breathing it in can cause coughing, trouble breathing normally, stinging eyes, and a scratchy throat – or worse. To help protect communities affected by wildfire smoke, EPA researchers take air quality measurements to better understand the chemistry of smoke and improve models used to predict where smoke from wildland fires will travel. Being in the path of the smoke plume is dangerous for everyone – including firefighters and the scientists who study the effects and spread of wildfire smoke.
Airplanes and helicopters are often used to track fires, but they’re costly and can’t fly in poor conditions. Flying over huge forest fires is also risky for the pilots and crew.
That’s where using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) can help. A UAS can fly without having a person present in or on the device. Also known as drones, they are an emerging research tool that may provide a safer, more cost-effective, and more comprehensive approach than traditional, ground-based research methods. Drones can be equipped with cameras and sensors and zip through spots that helicopters can’t safely access.
EPA researchers have developed an air emission sensor and sampling instrument to use on a UAS and in other applications. The shoebox-sized equipment is called the Kolibri, which means “hummingbird” in several languages. It’s a lightweight system that weighs up to eight pounds and can record and send data in real time.
Research in EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) provides solutions needed to meet today’s complex environmental and human health challenges. Research is organized around six highly integrated and transdisciplinary national research programs that are closely aligned with the Agency’s strategic goals and cross-Agency strategies. Each program is guided by a Strategic Research Action Plan (StRAP) developed by EPA with input from its many internal and external partners and stakeholders.
On September 24, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the establishment of a new national program office, the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, which will span all 10 EPA regions and be supported by more than 200 staff. The new office will be led by a U.S. Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator, who will be announced at a later date. According to the EPA, the new office will address environmental justice matters by providing grants and technical assistance, enforcing federal civil rights laws, developing and implementing environmental laws, regulations, and policies, and providing support in alternative dispute resolution.
The new Inflation Reduction Act is being justly celebrated as the most significant piece of federal legislation to address the climate crisis to date. It includes about US$370 billion in incentives for everything from solar panels to electric vehicles.
But there’s some confusion around what it allows the Environmental Protection Agency to do.
The new law does amend the Clean Air Act – the nation’s primary air quality law – to define several greenhouse gases as air pollutants. So it will help the EPA as it plans future regulations. But it doesn’t specifically grant the EPA new authority to regulate power plants.
So, as groundbreaking as it is, the Inflation Reduction Act does not change the impact of the Supreme Court’s determination in West Virginia v. EPA that the EPA lacks the authority to require a systematic shift to cleaner sources of electricity generation.
Why the ruling remains a roadblock for the EPA
The court case involved the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a policy that would have required power generators to use cleaner forms of electricity but never went into effect.
Writing for the court in West Virginia v. EPA, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the EPA was asserting broad new authority under a little-used provision of the Clean Air Act without explicitly being granted the authority to do so by Congress.
In what has become known as the “major questions doctrine,” the court has adopted a more stringent approach to how it interprets laws that gives much less deference to the views of experts at the federal agencies charged with implementing complex, dynamic regulatory programs designed to protect public health and safety. That accurately describes the challenge of dealing with carbon pollution and the profound impacts it is already having throughout the world.
Roberts made clear that Congress could choose to pass more detailed legislation granting EPA the authority at the heart of the case if it wished.
The Inflation Reduction Act amends the Clean Air Act to add seven specific new programs to reduce greenhouse gases and provide funding to the states to develop their own plans. Taken together, these provisions go a long way to address Roberts’ concern that Congress has not spoken plainly enough about EPA’s authority to tackle climate change.
But it falls short of granting EPA the authority to revive the generation shifting approach of the Clean Power Plan.
To get the bill through the sharply divided Congress, the Senate’s Democratic majority used a process called budget reconciliation. That process allows for legislation to pass with only a simple majority of the vote. But legislation passed that way must be closely tied to spending, revenue and the federal debt limit – it cannot set broad national policy.
What the new law does do for EPA’s authority
While the Inflation Reduction Act cannot undo what the Supreme Court has done, it does strengthen EPA’s ability going forward to take stronger actions under the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases.
The act not only provides substantial increases in EPA’s budget across a wide range of air pollution programs, it also, for the first time, explicitly defines greenhouse gases to include the six specific gases that the EPA determined in 2009 pose a risk to public health and welfare. That 2009 “endangerment finding” was upheld by the Supreme Court in the 2014 case Utility Air Regulatory Group v EPA.
As Sen. Tom Carper, one of the principal architects of the Inflation Reduction Act, said, “The language makes pretty clear that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”
Of course, nothing in life or litigation is certain.
Challenges to EPA’s forthcoming rules replacing the Clean Power Plan, regulating methane emissions from oil and gas operations, tightening tailpipe emission and fuel economy standards, and so on can be expected. But at least now there is clear legislative direction from Congress for the EPA to take bold action needed to meet the profound challenge of climate change and transition to a sustainable economy.
In February 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its plans to shutter its online archive—a key resource on the work of the agency that is relied upon by researchers, legislators, policymakers, and citizens for work on everything “from historical research to democratic oversight.” Pulling the plug would instantly have made public access to a vast array of fact sheets, environmental reports, policy changes, and regulatory actions significantly more difficult.
Months of public backlash ensued—including damning public letters from prominent organizations. And just last week, the EPA announced that it would push back the demise of the archive until July 2023.
News of this welcome reprieve for the EPA digital archive raises a significant question: Why continue with plans to shut it down at all? Postponement does not resolve the eventual damage to government transparency and historical record keeping that the archive’s demise will create. And the concerns of organizations opposed to closure will not be satisfied by an additional year of operation.
Is there a case to be made that this vital resource’s reprieve should be a permanent one?
After years of neglect, President Biden promised to reinvigorate the EPA as part of his push to tackle climate change and ease the pollution burden placed on poor and minority communities. But the agency’s budgetary woes are preventing the nation’s top pollution regulator from doing its job, in ways large and small.
The agency’s funding has remained stagnant since his inauguration. Its work is hamstrung by low staffing levels not seen since Ronald Reagan left office.
The lack of resources and workers has undercut its ability to inspect facilities, measure contamination, punish violators and write new rules to stem pollution and climate change at a time when scientists say the world needs to act faster to stop runaway global warming.
At the beginning of his term, Biden asked Congress for a big boost to the EPA’s budget, from $9.2 billion to $11.2 billion. But the agency ended up getting only a fifth of that additional $2 billion requested by Biden, an increase that does not keep pace with the rapid rate of inflation.
That means the EPA actually has less spending power since Democrats took full control of the executive and legislative branches, even as its responsibilities grow.
This Strategic Plan deepens EPA’s commitment to protecting human health and the environment for all people, with an emphasis on historically overburdened and underserved communities. For the first time, EPA’s final Strategic Plan includes a new strategic goal focused solely on addressing climate change and an unprecedented goal to advance environmental justice and civil rights. These priorities are integrated throughout the Plan’s programmatic goals and cross-agency strategies, which are supported by long-term performance goals EPA will use to monitor and communicate progress.
EPA has announced the of ECHO Notify, a new web tool that empowers members of the public to stay informed about important environmental enforcement and compliance activities in their communities. Through ECHO Notify, users can sign up to receive weekly emails when new information is available within the selected geographic area, such as when a violation or enforcement action has taken place at a nearby facility.
“EPA is committed to empowering communities with the information they need to understand and make informed decisions about their health and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “We’ve also seen that increased transparency leads to stronger deterrence of environmental violations. As more people play an active role in protecting their neighborhoods from pollution, EPA has developed ECHO Notify so that finding updates on environmental enforcement and compliance activities is as easy as checking your email.”
ECHO Notify provides information on all EPA enforcement and compliance activities as well as activities of state and local governments under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
You can find ECHO Notify on EPA’s website at ECHO Notify, as shown below.
Visitors to the ECHO Notify homepage who wish to receive email updates only need to take a few simple steps:
Create an account, if you don’t have one already;
Select a geographic area and/or facility ID(s);
Choose the type of compliance and enforcement information of interest;
Enter an email address; and
Once subscribed, the user will receive an automated email (typically on Sunday) containing new information from the prior weeklong period. If no new information is available, no email will be sent. Email notifications include links for users to view additional information on ECHO, including a link to each facility’s Detailed Facility Report. Users can easily update their notification selections or unsubscribe at any time.