For the Environmental Protection Agency, having Donald Trump in office was kind of like letting loose a bull in a china shop for four years. Now, the Biden administration is rapidly attempting to clean up the mess he left behind. In doing so, we’re getting a better picture of just how far the agency has fallen behind in holding polluters accountable even before Trump showed up.
The EPA said Thursday that it was moving to rescind a rule issued under the Trump administration that hamstrung the agency’s ability to effectively calculate and enforce air pollution violations under the Clean Air Act. The regulation, known as the cost-benefit rule, required the agency to complicate its cost-benefit analysis for rulemaking. Trump’s EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said it was designed to reduce transparency, but also admitted would prevent the EPA from passing future regulations on things like mercury pollution from power plants—a rule that cost industry $9 billion to comply with after it was passed under the Obama administration. (The cost-benefit regulation was a long-awaited wish list item for the fossil fuel industry, which gives you an idea of who really benefited from the rule.)
The move is the latest in this administration’s effort to undo the damage Trump did. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office requiring the EPA to review all rules and policies passed under Trump. That’s good and all given the widespread damage Trump did to the agency by appointing coal lovers Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler to lead the EPA during his administration.
But a new report from the agency’s watchdog shows the EPA has been dragging its feet a little on keeping polluters in line even before our last Big Wet President wreaked havoc. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Thursday that found that between 2007 and 2018, there was a decline across the board in enforcement actions from the EPA with some types of enforcement actions declining by as much as 50%. This decline was despite a corresponding boom in industrial activity and economic growth that should have prompted the agency to go after polluters even harder.
“The decline in compliance monitoring activities meant that, over time, the Agency and the public had less knowledge about compliance by regulated entities and whether facilities emitted pollutants that could be harmful to people,” the report found.
The reason for this decline, the report found, was a decline in resources. The budget for EPA enforcement in 2018 was 18% less than it was in 2006, laeding leadership to cut resources even as polluting industries saw a boom. The report also found that leadership in the agency chose to put most of their enforcement resources into bigger efforts, leaving the smaller enforcement actions to less-well-funded state agencies.
Much of this decline in funding happened pre-Trump; his gutting of the agency, including eliminating some wonky but key enforcement actions, served to hamstring enforcement even further. But there are signs that the Biden EPA is working to make up for lost time, especially as it commits itself to climate progress and environmental justice. Last week, the agency’s acting assistant administrator sent a memo instructing the agency to ramp up “enforcement of violations of cornerstone environmental statutes” in communities vulnerable to pollution. The agency also issued a fresh update this week with new statistics and measurements on its Climate Change Indicators site, which sat long-neglected under the Trump administration. (The EPA climate change subsite also returned earlier this year.)
It was wild watching how quickly the Trump EPA moved to roll back environmental protections—but disappointing knowing the agency was letting some polluters off the hook even before he showed up. Here’s hoping the new administration will work double-time to right the ship.