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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 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.
Career employees are being “worked to death,” said Betsy Southerland, a former top E.P.A. 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 E.P.A. has stepped up its recruitment efforts and has purchased software that has helped it identify more potential job candidates, particularly from universities.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
- Colorado River: The seven states that rely on water from the shrinking river are unlikely to agree to voluntarily make deep reductions in their water use, which would force the Biden administration to impose cuts.
- Mining Ban: A 20-year moratorium on new mining activity for more than 225,000 acres of federal land in Minnesota could deal a fatal blow to a proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine.
- Logging in Alaska: The Biden administration banned logging and road-building on about nine million acres of the Tongass National Forest, North America’s largest temperate rainforest.
- A Struggling E.P.A.: Despite an injection of funding, the Environmental Protection Agency is still reeling from an exodus of scientists and policy experts during the Trump administration.
“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 accomplishments had come “despite depleted staffing levels, persistent funding challenges and a previous administration that left the agency neglected and scientifically compromised.”
The E.P.A. 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 like $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 E.P.A. has “a little bit of walking-around money,” Mr. Regan joked to staff at a recent meeting.
But experts said they worry the E.P.A.’s regulatory and enforcement work is taking a back seat to issuing grants.
“E.P.A. 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.
And time is running out.
Mr. Biden wants to cut United States greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half this decade in order to avoid the most severe climate disruptions. Analysts say that even with the new climate law, the president can’t achieve his goal without new regulations designed to cut carbon dioxide and other pollutants from power plants, cars and trucks.
The process from proposing a regulation to enacting it can take months, and the current delays may mean that some rules are not completed until next year. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can repeal any regulation within 60 legislative days of being finalized with a simple majority vote. So any final rule issued in late 2024 could be repealed by Republicans if they maintain control of the House and pick up seats in the Senate in the November 2024 elections.
Moreover, Biden administration climate rules are also likely to face legal challenges. If a new administration is elected in 2024, it might opt not to defend the rules in court.
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A recent report card from Evergreen, an environmental group, found the E.P.A. 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 Mr. Biden has pledged to do.
In a recent interview, Mr. 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 E.P.A.” Mr. Regan said.
Despite the billions earmarked for climate programs, E.P.A. 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.
The nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project recently found that federal environmental enforcement was slipping under Mr. Biden. E.P.A.’s civil cases against polluters hit a two-decade low in 2022, with 72 such enforcement cases closed in court. That’s fewer than during the Trump administration, which bristled against restrictions on industry yet closed an average of 94 enforcement cases per year. The Obama administration averaged 210 per year, the report found. E.P.A. officials said they were focused on protecting heavily polluted communities by increasing inspections and targeting the most serious violations.
Industries regulated by the E.P.A. are also frustrated, saying 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 like Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil Chemical, is frustrated by “constant delays and lack of transparency in how resources are being deployed,” according to a statement from Kimberly Wise White, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs at the trade group.
Michal Freedhoff, who leads the E.P.A.’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 E.P.A. under the Trump administration never sought the resources from Congress that were required to perform the work.
In fact, Mr. Trump tried each year to slash the E.P.A. budget by at least 30 percent. 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 E.P.A. work force, a lot of people left dispirited,” said Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which oversees the E.P.A.
The result is that the E.P.A.’s chemical safety office is way 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,” particularly with the regulatory delays, and had expressed that to Mr. Regan personally.
The E.P.A. is hiring and, in the past two years, has increased its payroll by 3 percent, up to 14,844 employees. But that has brought total staffing levels to slightly more than when Ronald Reagan was president.
Staffing at the E.P.A. peaked in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration, when there were 17,611 employees, according to the agency. Those levels ebbed and flowed slightly, but began to take a sharp dip during the Obama administration amid Republican control of the House and Senate.
When Mr. Trump entered the White House, the E.P.A. had 15,408 employees. The following year it dropped to 14,172 employees, a level that stood more or less steady until the Biden administration.
It was only last month that the agency received its first significant budget increase in years, an additional $576 million, for enforcement and compliance, as well as clean air, water and toxic chemical programs.
Max Stier, the head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to make government more effective, said the E.P.A. faced a “consequential hurdle” to both accomplishing the long list of rules that Mr. 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.”
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.