What you can expect from an Obama EPA

Here are some tell tale signs of what direction on environmental management the new administration will take us in the next four years.


The New EPA administrator.  Lisa Jackson has been confirmed by the Senate as the new EPA Administrator. She is a chemical engineer by training and was the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.


In her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on January 14, 2009, Jackson stated that the new Administration’s environmental initiatives are “highlighted by five key objectives: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; reducing other air pollutants; addressing toxic chemicals; cleaning up hazardous-waste sites; and protecting water.”


In her first memo to staff, Lisa Jackson highlighted the five priorities that will receive her personal attention:


*       “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The President has pledged to make responding to the threat of climate change a high priority of his administration. He is confident that we can transition to a low-carbon economy while creating jobs and making the investment we need to emerge from the current recession and create a strong foundation for future growth. I share this vision. EPA will stand ready to help Congress craft strong, science-based climate legislation that fulfills the vision of the President. As Congress does its work, we will move ahead to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing EPA’s obligation to address climate change under the Clean Air Act.


*       Improving air quality. The nation continues to face serious air pollution challenges, with large areas of the country out of attainment with air-quality standards and many communities facing the threat of toxic air pollution. Science shows that people’s health is at stake. We will plug the gaps in our regulatory system as science and the law demand.

*       Managing chemical risks. More than 30 years after Congress enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act, 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. It is now time to revise and strengthen EPA’s chemicals management and risk assessment programs.


*       Cleaning up hazardous-waste sites. EPA will strive to accelerate the pace of cleanup at the hundreds of contaminated sites across the country. Turning these blighted properties into productive parcels and reducing threats to human health and the environment means jobs and an investment in our land, our communities and our people.


*       Protecting America’s water. EPA will intensify our work to restore and protect the quality of the nation’s streams, rivers, lakes, bays, oceans and aquifers. The Agency will make robust use of our authority to restore threatened treasures such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, to address our neglected urban rivers, to strengthen drinking-water safety programs, and to reduce pollution from non-point and industrial dischargers. “


Changes to regulations. There will be “roll back” of some of the new regulations finalized by EPA during the last months of the previous administration. This is a rite of passage when there is a new administration. For example, under the Bush administration, EPA excluded from the definition of solid waste spent solvents that are to be reclaimed. That means generators do not need to manage their ignitable spent solvents as hazardous wastes while waiting to reclaim them. This rule became final in December of 2008 and could be one of the many new rules that will be reviewed by the new EPA and rolled back.


Increase in enforcement. There will be more focus on enforcement of existing environmental regulations. Historical enforcement data from EPA indicates that the number of persons charged with environmental crimes increased under a Democratic White House. (See chart). You can expect another increase in enforcement under the Obama administration.


The push from Congress. The House of Representatives and Senate are now controlled by the Democrats with a sizable margin. It is reasonable to expect this new Congress to play a much more important and active role in formulating national environmental policies. In the Senate, Barbara Boxer of California is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that has jurisdiction over EPA. On the House side, Congressman Henry Waxman – also from California – is now chair of the powerful House Energy and Environment Committee.


Here is what Senator Boxer said about EPA in her opening statement at the confirmation hearing: The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is very clear: “To protect human health and the environment.” This is EPA’s central purpose. Unfortunately, we have seen the agency move in a direction diametrically opposed to the mission it was established to achieve. She went on to say that  “EPA must ensure that our environmental laws protect our children first and foremost, not ignore the dangerous threats children face from pollution. When we protect our children, we protect everyone.”


Directives from the White House. As with any administration – Republican or Democratic – the background of the Administrator’s background is less important than the policy directives from the White House. Even before the new EPA administrator was confirmed by the Senate, President Obama already directed EPA to consider granting waiver to California and 13 other states under the Clean air Act to adopt more stringent tail pipe emission standards for automobiles. The same waiver had been denied under the previous administration. This is just a sign of the times.


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