Environmental advocates, generally strong supporters of the Biden administration, are expressing frustration at what they describe as too-lengthy delays for important regulations.
Their frustration follows the administration’s recent release of its semiannual regulatory agenda, which pushed back timelines for a range of rules governing planet-warming emissions and other pollution coming from power plants, drinking water limits for toxic chemicals and stipulations for fossil fuel leasing on public lands.
“We in the advocacy community have seen this film before where a nominally progressive president comes in with grand promises about leveraging the administrative state to advance progressive policy goals and then just waits until the last minute,” said James Goodwin, senior policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform.
“It is a total unforced error. It is points left on the field,” Goodwin added.
Asked about the delays and frustration from environmental groups, a White House spokesperson cited the accomplishments that President Biden has achieved on climate.
“President Biden has done more than any president in U.S. history to tackle the climate crisis, and has no intention of slowing down now,” said spokesperson Abdullah Hasan.
“He will keep using all the tools available to him to advance his clean energy agenda, which is already creating good-paying jobs, lowering costs, revitalizing American manufacturing, and putting the United States back on track to reach its climate goals,” he added.
But many of these advocates are critical of the slow-moving regulations.
Climate advocacy group Evergreen, for one, recently released a report saying that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was falling “further behind” on power plant regulations.
It pointed to regulations for the plants’ contributions for climate change, which the EPA said in a fall 2021 edition of its regulatory schedule that it had hoped to propose by July 2022. Last year, the administration pushed those proposals back to March 2023, and it now says they’ll be proposed even later in April.
Jamal Raad, Evergreen’s executive director, called the delays “deeply troubling.”
“They threaten the administration’s ability to finalize these rules in the first term and those that they do complete may be vulnerable to be blocked altogether by Republicans,” Raad said.
If Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of Congress and the White House in 2024, they could move forward with a resolution under the Congressional Review Act that could enable them to ax any rules put forward during the last 60 legislative days of the Biden administration in which Congress was in session.
The Supreme Court issued a ruling in June that dictated what approaches the EPA can and cannot take on the power plant rules. Ahead of the ruling, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency would be “ready to go” once the court ruled amid congressional scrutiny over the agency’s timeline.
The Evergreen report also points to additional regulations that concern power plants, including air quality standards that were previously slated for completion this March but now won’t be finished until August.
EPA chief of staff Dan Utech, in a written statement to The Hill, said that the administration “has done more than any prior administration to tackle the climate crisis and deliver environmental protections for all” and is “moving forward with the urgency that the science demands.”
Utech pointed to difficulties that the agency faces including “depleted staffing levels, persistent funding challenges, and a previous administration that left the agency neglected and scientifically compromised.”
During the Trump years, hundreds of workers left the agency, reportedly reducing the size of its workforce by 8 percent in the first 18 months of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to the agency, it has 3 percent more employees today than it did in January 2021.
Utech also cited accomplishments including vehicle climate and pollution standards, a proposal to cut the planet-warming gas methane from the oil and gas sector and efforts to tighten soot pollution that the Evergreen report cited as delayed.
And he noted that the agency is working to put together rules that follow science and the law and that will “stand the test of time.” Actions that the agency takes to protect the environment may be subject to court challenges from industry or Republican-led states.
Meanwhile, dozens of environment and health-focused groups wrote to the White House last week regarding the pace of drinking water limits for a group of toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
PFAS are a class of chemicals also known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the body and environment instead of breaking down. They have been linked to illnesses including kidney and testicular cancer and immune system problems.
The Biden administration previously said that it planned to propose a limit for how much of these substances can be in drinking water by the end of 2022 and finalize one by the end of 2023, but so far it has not put forward a proposal.
“Communities have waited decades for EPA to get toxic forever chemicals out of their water and they shouldn’t have to wait any longer,” Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told The Hill.
Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, raised concerns about the potential for the Congressional Review Act being used on rules that govern new leasing of public lands for fossil fuel extraction.
“There is a big risk right now that the Interior Department and [the White House Office of Management and Budget] are running. They have to get these rules not just written but drafted, released and then finalized within the next probably 12 to 15 months,” he said.
That rule was previously slated for proposal this month but is now scheduled for April.
Goodwin called for reforms to the regulatory review process to combat delays, including limiting the scope of which rules go through the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and adding tighter deadlines for White House review.
“The rulemaking process is ridiculously complicated. We’ve added all these analytical and procedural burdens on agencies that they have to satisfy,” Goodwin said.