A Revived EPA Takes on Climate Change and More
Under President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency is starting to flex its muscles again
By Kent Garber
U.S.News & World Report
April 10, 2009

Over the past 10 weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency has been pumping out proposals and directives on everything from climate change to pollution from ships. In one high-profile move last month, the EPA said it will launch detailed reviews of permits for mountaintop coal mining operations, which can have profound effects on nearby waterways.

By moving so quickly, President Obama’s EPA has in effect reproached the Bush administration for dawdling on climate change. In calling for tougher regulations, it has also criticized Bush officials for catering to businesses and industry. “There’s a larger message that we have to give to the American people, which is that EPA is back on the job, that we are guardians protecting clean air and clean water,” says EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Because many of these proposals only begin to lay the groundwork for future regulations, they are, to a certain degree, still symbolic. Some Republicans say they have seen few surprises or radical moves, much to their relief. Nevertheless, the agency under the new administration has clearly enjoyed a dramatic boost in morale and stature after eight years of being stifled.

“They are very empowered, much more so now, to take action on some very controversial issues,” says Christie Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who served as EPA chief in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2003, before resigning in frustration. “There is a whole different attitude.” Unlike Bush, who once belittled the EPA as a “bureaucracy,” Obama appears to view it as a central player in his clean-energy agenda.

This new tone is most obvious with matters of climate change. Two years ago, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide emissions are a threat to public health. Bush’s EPA refused to issue a verdict, even though career agency officials concluded in a preliminary document last summer that CO2 does indeed pose a risk. Jackson’s EPA ended the standoff last month by agreeing that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant and should be regulated. The decision, called an endangerment finding, was sent to the White House.

Two other climate change actions stand out. First, a proposal announced last month would require large emitters of greenhouse gases to annually track and report their outputs, starting in 2010. The rule, Jackson says, is “the Obama administration acknowledging that as we move toward a clean-energy future, we will need to know where CO2 emissions are coming from.” The agency also is reconsidering a request from California and at least a dozen other states to impose stricter standards on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks that was denied by Bush in 2007.

As the endangerment finding suggests, many of the agency’s early moves draw heavily on existing analyses by its scientists that had been ignored by previous political appointees. But Jackson’s EPA has also taken notable steps on its own. Late last month, it started to scrutinize as many as 200 permits for mountaintop coal mining operations, citing the need for further review. This week, it proposed new emissions limits for ships that will apply to much of the U.S. coastline and said it will begin monitoring air quality at dozens of schools.

The EPA also has been reviewing a spate of environmental regulations the Bush administration wrote in its final months. “EPA is a pretty big writer of regulations, so we had a quite a workload there,” Jackson says. The review has flagged a number of rules that the agency might want to modify, she adds.

Among EPA watchers, the key question is how aggressively the agency will follow up on these initial moves, especially with respect to climate change. “So far, there have been very splashy announcements that obviously play well to a core Democratic constituency but don’t really have an impact,” says Jeff Holmstead, a former Bush EPA air quality chief. “This endangerment finding will be greeted with great excitement by the environmental community and others, but it really is more of a political statement than a regulatory change.” Holmstead says that it could take more than a year to finalize the endangerment finding and an additional 18 months to write an actual regulation.

Certainly, the EPA is in line to get more money. Obama’s 2010 budget proposes increasing the agency’s funding by more than 33 percent, to $10.5 billion. (In addition, the EPA is helping distribute $7. 2 billion in stimulus funding, much of which is going to state and local governments.)

But there is still a large degree of uncertainty over what the EPA’s role will be amid all the other players jostling for attention, particularly Carol Browner, Obama’s high-powered White House climate change czar, not to mention the reigning Democratic environmental and energy leaders on Capitol Hill, Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Barbara Boxer.

A big debate is already kicking up over what will happen once the EPA does formally label CO2 a threat. For one thing, the Clean Air Act will most likely require the agency to regulate CO2 emissions from a whole host of sources, including power plants, factories, and farms (although there is still significant debate on this point). This week, Waxman, who chairs the House Energy Committee, released a highly anticipated draft of a cap-and-trade bill to limit emissions, suggesting that lawmakers may be getting ahead of the EPA. That may be exactly what Obama aides want. “My view is what they’re really trying to do is keep the pressure up on Congress to do something more sensible on greenhouse gas emissions as opposed to letting EPA figure out something,” says Holmstead. “It seems to me it is a very calculated moveā€”and that’s not meant to be criticism. They are taking slow steps.” Had the EPA wanted to move more quickly to regulate CO2, for example, there were more aggressive strategies it could have pursued.

Meanwhile, Jackson will have some opportunities to prove how serious she is about restoring scientific rigor to the EPA’s decision making after the Bush years. The EPA, for instance, is trying to figure out how to interpret the science on contentious ethanol-related issues, including whether to allow cars to run on higher blends of ethanol and how to measure emissions associated with biofuel production.

Weighing in are lobbying groups, businesses, manufacturers, powerful farm-state senators, and the heads of other cabinet departments. It will be an early test of Jackson’s leadership and her ability to stand up to competing voices within the Obama administration. “I still believe that one of the biggest challenges is this idea of czars, of having policy people in the White House,” says Whitman. “It creates confusion in the agency about who you would go to.” But, Whitman adds, “I will tell you that Lisa is plenty tough. If anyone can deal with it, she can.” It also doesn’t hurt that she will probably have the biggest budget in the EPA’s 39-year history.