EPA's First Year Under Obama: Reenergized, But Still Too Cautious

James Goodwin

Jan. 21, 2010

This post is the third in a series on the new CPR report Obama’s Regulators: A First-Year Report Card.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the biggest and most powerful of the protector agencies. Consequently, it has also become the agency that was most decimated by regulatory opponents in recent decades. Thus, when President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, he inherited an EPA with its confidence severely dented, but otherwise eager to get back to the important work of protecting people and the environment. As CPR found in its new report, EPA’s performance this past year reflected this disposition: the agency steamed ahead on many important issues, but approached certain controversial issues with visible trepidation.

Looking back, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth of EPA’s accomplishments this past year. The agency took protective actions in several areas including toxics reform, chemicals screening, ground level ozone, sulfur dioxide, lead air pollution monitoring, managing hazardous waste, and protecting children’s health and safety. EPA’s most impressive actions, however, came in the areas of climate change and Chesapeake Bay restoration.

EPA immediately got off on the right foot with climate change, agreeing to reconsider a Bush-era decision denying California’s request for a waiver from the Clean Air Act so that it could restrict greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cars. The agency soon took a series of actions that went much further. First, the agency issued its proposed endangerment finding for GHGs, which would trigger its obligation under the Clean Air Act to regulate GHGs from stationary sources (e.g., power plants and factories) and mobile sources (e.g., cars). EPA issued its final endangerment finding in December. By then, the agency had already proposed regulations for controlling GHGs from large stationary sources and automobiles. The proposed automobile GHG standard is at least as strong as California’s proposed standard, obviating the need for EPA to actually grant the state’s request for a waiver from the Clean Air Act. The only disappointing aspect of EPA’s performance on climate change was that its proposed automobile standard was not as strong as it should have been in order to make a meaningful reduction in automobile’s contribution to climate change. This was in part because the agency’s proposed rule was based on a flawed cost-benefit analysis that severely undercounted the benefits of avoiding the effects of climate change. Nevertheless, EPA’s positive steps on climate change were a welcome change from the eight years of denial and foot-dragging from the Bush Administration. Climate change is without a doubt the most important challenge that EPA currently faces, and it is heartening to see the agency take it so seriously.

This past year also saw EPA tackle another important environmental issue: cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. First, the agency released its draft strategy to improve the health of the Bay. What makes this strategy unique—and an encouraging departure from past half-hearted practice—is that it establishes a framework that enables the federal government to hold the states accountable for meeting cleanup goals. For decades now, efforts to clean up the Chesapeake have seen the states announce ambitious cleanup goals to great fanfare, only to have them abandon these goals when the going got tough. There has been no mechanism for holding states accountable to ensure that today’s cleanup goals wouldn’t quickly turn into tomorrow’s broken promises. In December, EPA announced its plan for punishing states that fail to meet their cleanup goals. According to EPA’s enforcement strategy, the consequences for failing to meet such goals might include changes in federal funding, rejection of certain building permits, and tighter rules on farms.

Unfortunately, EPA did not approach every issue with such boldness. In particular, the agency was too cautious in dealing with certain controversial issues involving some of its old nemeses—foes like the Department of Defense (DOD), the petrochemical industry, and the agriculture industry. For instance, EPA has waged a long and difficult battle with the DOD over the regulation of perchlorate—a toxic component of rocket fuel. Before leaving office, the Bush Administration issued a midnight regulatory decision not to establish a health-protective standard for the chemical in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. One of the agency’s highest priorities should have been to reverse this decision. Instead, EPA may have bowed to DOD intimidation again, by putting off any action while it conducts more unnecessary testing on the chemical’s toxic effects. Unfortunately, the White House may have helped contribute to this development; its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs hosted a meeting of DOD and EPA on the issue.

Similarly, it seems that strong opposition from the petrochemical industry has persuaded EPA to delay action on strengthening standards for atrazine—a widely used but toxic herbicide—under the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA was supposed to complete a review of the current standard by the end of last year, but it announced that it would instead undertake additional (and unnecessary) studies of the chemical's health and environmental effects until at least 2011. Likewise, stiff opposition from the agriculture industry has likely discouraged EPA to delay reversing another Bush midnight regulation that makes it easier for large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to avoid regulation under the Clean Water Act’s permitting program.

Overall, EPA is undoubtedly heading in the right direction—and doing so with great aplomb on most issues. But the agency is still reluctant to court too much controversy. The White House has contributed somewhat to this problem in some areas, with the agency’s delay on dealing with perchlorate providing a good example. Obama should be publicly supporting the agency, so that its institutional confidence returns as quickly as possible. In the end, EPA won’t be able fulfill its regulatory mission of protecting people and the environment unless it is willing and able to take bold action.

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