By Gabriel Nelson
December 17, 2010

At a time of unprecedented rancor over the costs and benefits of U.S. EPA rules, the Obama administration has far less leeway than the agency’s critics in Congress suggest, according to the man who led the agency under George H.W. Bush.

Many of the most costly new regulations were left behind by the George W. Bush administration, William Reilly told an audience at the National Press Club yesterday. Some of the rules were ordered by Congress but were never put in place, forcing EPA to settle with environmental groups. Others have court deadlines from when the last administration’s policies were rejected in court.

“They’re like little hand grenades that have been rolled out there by previous administrators, and now they’re ticking,” Reilly said. “They’re very difficult, and some of them quite expensive, rules.”

Reilly, who is also co-chairman of the presidential panel investigating the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lent his support to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, describing her as “exactly the right person for the job” as EPA catches up on the unfinished rules. He was giving her the Peter A.A. Berle Environmental Integrity Award, which is given out by the Century Foundation and several environmental advocacy groups.

In his speech, Reilly became the latest of several Republican-appointed administrators to mourn the disconnect between the nation’s environmental laws and the politics that surround EPA’s efforts to implement them. That has been a recurring problem since the agency’s creation in 1970, but it has become worse in recent years, said Bill Ruckelshaus, who was EPA’s first administrator under Richard Nixon and returned to the post during the Ronald Reagan years.

When it comes to the environment, the American people tend to be “ideological liberals and operational conservatives,” Ruckelshaus said last month at Harvard University during a conference that celebrated the agency’s 40th birthday.

It was lofty goals that inspired the passage of strict laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, he said, but when the rules came due and people saw their economic impacts, they weren’t so happy.
While the new administration seems to have been more inclined to issue rules, the problem is that the laws give EPA little leeway to offer the flexible programs that would achieve environmental goals at the lowest cost, said Christine Todd Whitman, who led the agency for the first two years of the George W. Bush administration.

“They often get stuck in the middle and blamed for a lot of things that are really not their own doing,” Whitman said earlier this week in an interview with Greenwire. “But that’s not to say that we don’t have a number of people at EPA who feel empowered by the Obama administration in a way that they hadn’t felt for eight years.”

Although November’s election was an outcry for smaller government and less costly regulations, Whitman said, the American people will swing back toward the Democrats if Republicans go into a “slash and burn mode” to prove that they’re serious about stopping regulations. She warned her colleagues about trying to eliminate EPA or make it impossible for the agency to do its work.

“It was established for a reason: We need it,” Whitman said. “As much as I like to think that businesses and industry will always do the right things to protect us, they won’t. Some of them for nefarious reasons, and others because they’re just trying to save money.”

Busy agenda for EPA

Hanging over Jackson’s head is the understanding that next year, the Republicans who take control of the House are going to make her a fixture at hearings on Capitol Hill. She said yesterday that the agency will need to show that it follows science and the law, rather than worrying about political “wins and losses.”

Jackson was referring to a pair of controversial air pollution rules that the agency delayed earlier this month. In court filings, the agency signaled that it wants more time to tighten the nationwide smog standards and issue new rules on toxic pollution from industrial boilers (E&ENews PM, Dec. 8).

The boiler standards face a legal deadline because a federal court rejected the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the boilers, which are used to supply power to everything from paper mills to hospitals. And the national air quality standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, are being reconsidered by the Obama administration after the Bush administration set a limit that was higher than what agency scientists had recommended.

In its court filings, EPA said it needs to spend more time reviewing the science before it makes a decision on the regulations, which would have billions of dollars in public health benefits but would also require businesses to spend billions on pollution controls.

Jackson said it was not the first time the agency followed the science and made a decision that initially seemed to be less protective of the environment. Environmentalists howled this spring when the agency used dispersants to break up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and while EPA was initially skeptical about the use of the chemicals, the agency decided it was the best way to address the problem, she said.

Advocacy groups have questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to environmental protection in recent weeks, saying the decision to delay controversial rules shows that EPA is bowing to pressure from its critics. Meanwhile, industry groups have praised the agency’s hesitance, saying the rules would chill investment in the United States and could lead some companies to move their operations abroad.

But the public won’t have faith in EPA if the agency looks at these decisions as “a victory for one side or the other,” Jackson said.

“We believe in both the goals and the urgency of these rules,” she said. “But we also recognize that these rules will last for decades. They will have far-reaching implications.”