Groups Hope Obama Will Rebuild EPA

Environmentalists are eager for President-elect Barack Obama to take office so that he can reverse the troubled Bush administration legacy at the Environmental Protection Agency.

They have watched with dismay–and often disgust–for eight years as the Bush White House took apart decades-old protections and gutted the agency’s authority.

Until recently, environmentalists’ only real source of redress had come in court, where they have fought to undo many of the controversial policies pushed through by the White House and its appointees at the EPA.

Now, environmentalists are hopeful for a more receptive president. In recent weeks, Obama has signaled–sometimes explicitly–his intention to take the EPA in a much different direction than his predecessor. The changes, observers say, will likely be both broad and specific, affecting not only individual policies but also the larger question of where power should lie within the federal government for decisions that affect the environment.

There are strong indications that the EPA, under the Obama administration, will be asked to play an integral role in the fight against climate change, that some air and water regulations will be reviewed and tightened, and that the agency could stand to receive large boosts in its budget and staffing. Some changes could come quickly, within the first year of Obama’s presidency; others may take longer.

The transition from Bush to Obama doesn’t necessarily prefigure an era of massive and unprecedented environmental regulation but rather an era of “smart regulation,” says Scott Schang, a vice president at the Environmental Law institute. Since most environmental statutes were put in place before 1990, many are outdated, inadequate, and in need of updating. “The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act–all have questions hanging over them about how to make them more efficient, about how to make them work better,” Schang said.

Broadly speaking, environmentalists want two things to happen within the EPA itself. They want scientific findings respected and the agency’s authority on environmental matters restored.

It has been widely reported that scientific analyses and recommendations have been ignored and overruled by administration appointees when issuing decisions and making new rules. Earlier this year, for example, when the EPA issued new limits on smog emissions, its chief administrator, Stephen Johnson, ignored the findings of the agency’s own scientific advisory committee, which had recommended significantly more stringent limits than those he adopted.

EPA’s authority on regulatory matters, meanwhile, has been encroached upon by the Defense Department and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which has weighed in on the costs of regulatory action and pushed more lenient standards, says Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform. “Under Bush, OMB became equally powerful, if not more powerful,” than the EPA, she said. “It’s as if OMB often sends low-flying planes to strafe the deck at EPA.”

Obama’s most important move on these fronts, observers say, will be his selection of EPA administrator. The president-elect hasn’t made that decision yet, but his picks for transition team members overseeing EPA issues suggest a strong pro-regulation, pro-science bent. Among them: Jonathan Cannon, a University of Virginia law professor and former Clinton official who is widely regarded as one of the chief architects of greenhouse gas regulation policies in the 1990s.

In addition, Obama could embolden EPA by restoring its flagging budget: Over the past six years, the EPA’s budget has fallen by $1.3 billion, or 15 percent.

Many environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer, are asking Obama to take quick action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a move that would likely involve the EPA. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, but the Bush administration, through a series of legal and executive maneuvers, has successfully stalled. Once he takes office, Obama could direct the EPA to begin looking at how such regulation might work.

There are also a whole host of air and water policies, ranging from mercury levels to smog standards, that environmentalists would like to see the EPA strengthen. In its waning days, in fact, the Bush administration’s EPA is attempting to publish more rules that, if finalized, will likely lead to large increases in lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions from factories and power plants. The Obama administration could issue new rules to overturn the changes.

That process could be lengthy. But it doesn’t have to be, since in many cases proposals for more stringent rules already exist–they’ve simply been cast aside. “There is already a whole base of knowledge out there, so this doesn’t have to take forever” Steinzor says. “The most important thing for [Obama transition cochairman] John Podesta and the transition team is to make sure they have people in place, sitting at their desks.”

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