Trump Damaged the EPA. Here's How Michael Regan Can Rebuild It and Advance Equitable Environmental Protections.

Victor Flatt
Joel Mintz

Dec. 18, 2020

Update: On March 10, 2021, the Senate voted to confirm Michael Regan as EPA Administrator.

President-elect Joe Biden is set to name Michael Regan to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regan is currently the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and his past experience includes earlier stints at EPA and the Environmental Defense Fund. He would be the first Black man to serve as EPA administrator.

Donald Trump and the industry allies he appointed to head this critical agency — Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler — harmed it through a series of air, water, pesticide, and chemical safety rollbacks. Pruitt and Wheeler also imposed damaging procedural rules on the agency that, if left in place, will make it next to impossible to use the best science to craft environmental protections — or to justify them in the first place. Adding insult to injury, the agency significantly accelerated the long-term trend of reducing enforcement of our nation's environmental laws.

The Biden administration and Regan must rebuild the agency, revoke Pruitt and Wheeler's damaging policies, and refocus EPA on proactive enforcement and just, equitable environmental protections that work for all people and the planet.

Here are five top priorities they can start on right away:

  1. Begin a prompt, agency-wide review of Trump’s environmental rollbacks. In January, the Biden administration should undertake a systematic, agency-wide review of all Trump administration environmental rollbacks. This review should assess the public health and environmental risks posed by these rollbacks and their implications for environmental justice. Regan should work with career staff to set priorities for rescinding and/or replacing all rollbacks that harm people, communities, or the environment.

  2. Revamp environmental enforcement to protect communities and advance environmental justice. For decades, EPA enforcement of our environmental laws has suffered from resource shortages, inadequate staffing, and a dearth of political will. The Trump administration exploited these weaknesses and ramped up the agency’s nonenforcement approach — which included using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to waive crucial requirements related to pollution reporting. Regan should tackle this problem by restoring enforcement oversight of state environmental agencies, publicly calling for and reiterating the importance of strong enforcement, and focusing enforcement efforts on polluting industries in environmental justice communities.

  3. Recommit the agency to addressing the climate crisis. Pruitt was a notorious climate change denier, and former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler didn’t do much to shift the EPA away from this dangerous, unscientific attitude. That needs to change even before Regan is confirmed, and, fortunately, Biden has committed to doing just that. Specific recommendations include reassigning climate scientists removed from their roles after Trump took office to their prior positions and reviving EPA’s Science Advisory Board by replacing climate denialists with legitimate scientists.

  4. Rebuild EPA’s staff. Budget constraints and open hostility to EPA’s mission and work have spurred an exodus of career staff, shrinking the agency’s size and weakening its ability to protect the environment. With fewer staff and resources, EPA is less able to enforce environmental laws and respond to emerging environmental health threats. It has also cut the number of inspections it conducts in polluting facilities. The Biden team should rebuild EPA by assessing personnel needs, preparing a realistic proposal to significantly increase staff size, and expanding the agency's budget in order to do so.

  5. Repeal the agency's censored science and clean air "benefits-busting" rules. Pruitt's overarching attacks on the agency were to (1) constrain staff use of scientific evidence in crafting environmental and public health protections and (2) bias assessment of the costs and benefits of proposed rules in favor of industry. Regan must root out these policies, restore scientific integrity to the agency, and ensure it prioritizes public health, environmental protection, environmental justice, and the law when assessing rules.

These priorities are an important starting place, but a raft of damaging policies and rollbacks also need attention. These include replacing the agency’s weakened methane rule, repealing the Trump administration’s rollback of an Obama-era policy to reduce power plant emissions, and replacing the administration's regulation hollowing out the Clean Water Rule, which has left streams, wetlands and other waters unprotected by federal law.

The Biden administration will likely be able to tackle aspects of its longer-term environmental agenda through lawsuit settlements, but other repairs require the EPA to set entirely new rules. This will be a lengthy process, but it can and should be done to deliver better health, a cleaner environment, and justice and equity for all.

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Center for Progressive Reform’s Policy for a Just America initiative. Learn more on CPR’s website.

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