GLOBE Foundation

Turning back the tide - Remaking the EPA

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Courtesy of Courtesy of GLOBE Foundation

Stressing the importance of scientific integrity and transparency, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson last month called for key changes to the process for reviewing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect human health and the environment.

'It’s essential that the best science and the greatest transparency inform air quality standards that prevent illness and save lives,' said Jackson. 'These changes will help us bring a greater rigor and openness to our standard-setting process and improve the scientific basis for our standards.'

Her decision, one of many major reversals of past EPA decisions and practices since taking office only six months ago, is part of a dynamic overhaul of the main instrument of the U.S. environmental regulatory regime set in motion by President Barack Obama.

When he took office in January, few thought the new President could easily turn back the tide of midnight rule changes implemented in the dying days of the Bush administration. The apparent goals of these rule changes were to give industry more leeway to extract natural resources, to promote tourist activities within natural habitats, or to speed up federal or state government infrastructure projects.

President Obama has since demonstrated he was quite serious about the pronouncements he made during the presidential election campaign to clean up America’s environmental act. There have been dozens of reversals of the Bush administration midnight rule changes and the EPA has responded to many other criticisms of its past performance.

The most damning legacy of the Bush administration was the weakening of the Environmental Protection Agency. Two former directors of the EPA are on record that under the stewardship of now retired EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson, the Bush administration abdicated its responsibility to protect the environment and left the agency weak and demoralized.

'For a long time, conservatives have said follow the science, and in the climate-change decision, (EPA) did not follow the science -- it abdicated leadership and responsibility,' said William K. Reilly, who led the EPA under President George H.W. Bush. Here we see a real failure of leadership,' said Russell Train, EPA administrator during the Nixon and Ford eras. 'EPA has become a nonentity.'

President Obama’s appointment of Lisa Jackson to take over the EPA was a clear signal of his intention to restore the integrity of the agency. The former New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner has a stellar record of achievement both as an advocate for responsible environmental management, but also as an administrator.

Within hours of taking office President Obama ordered the EPA to review California’s request for tougher auto-emissions standards and directed the Department of Transportation to set higher fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks.

The announcement last week by the President of new auto emission standards not only provided the country with its first national fuel efficiency plan designed to reduce vehicle emissions and reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil, it also led the country’s cash-strapped automakers to drop their long-standing litigations over California’s push for clean car standards.

In January the Government Accountability Office released a report saying the EPA lacked even basic information to say whether chemicals pose substantial health risks to the public. It said actions were needed to streamline and increase the transparency of the EPA’s registry of chemicals, and called for measures to enhance the agency’s ability to obtain health and safety information from the chemical industry.

'It is clear that we are not doing an adequate job of assessing and managing the risks of chemicals in consumer products, the workplace and the environment,' said Administrator Jackson in response to the report, and since then major steps have been taken to beef up the agency’s oversight of potentially harmful chemicals.

Regulating air quality was another major reversal of past EPA practices. Last year the EPA was sued by New York and 11 other states for violating the federal Clean Air Act by refusing to issue standards for controlling global warming pollution emissions from oil refineries. The suit sought to force the EPA to control oil refinery emissions of greenhouse gases, which the suit says amounts to about 15 percent of U.S. industrial emissions of CO2.

Even though in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the EPA had the power to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act, then EPA head Johnson held it was Congress’s job to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases.

Present EPA Administrator Jackson’s decision last week with respect to National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) was a tacit admission that the agency did have the authority to regulate air quality to protect human health and the environment, and a demonstration of her determination to return the agency to its former stature as the guardian of the nation’s environmental wellbeing.

'If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide. I understand the laws leave room for policymakers to make policy judgments. But if I am confirmed, political appointees will not compromise the integrity of E.P.A.’s technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.' Lisa P. Jackson, from her Statement during Senate Confirmation Hearings

By formally reinstating the role of agency scientists to provide analyses of options for the administrator to consider when setting air quality standards, Jackson signalled that EPA analyses will be made available to the agency’s science advisors and to the public prior to the initiation of formal rulemaking.

In a separate letter to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), Administrator Jackson reaffirmed its role in guiding the agency to make scientifically sound decisions. The CASAC was established by the Clean Air Act to provide the administrator with independent technical advice on national air quality standards.

Jackson also asked staff to consult with scientific experts in other federal agencies that have responsibility for public health and environmental protection early in the review of each air quality standard.

While it is still early days in the new administration, and there will in time be inevitable compromises with respect to the environment, the economy and national security, the changes that have been instituted to bring science and transparency back into EPA decision making must be applauded.

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