Two nominees for high-ranking EPA positions are in procedural purgatory as Republicans aim to block their confirmations and Democratic leaders have so far declined to bring them to the floor.
The nominations have languished since last year. David Uhlmann, picked to lead the EPA’s enforcement division, formally the Office of Enforcement Compliance and Assurance, and Carlton Waterhouse, chosen to oversee the Superfund and waste division, had their confirmation hearings in 2021.
On April 7, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee deadlocked in 10-10 votes on both nominees. That means Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. — or the No. 2-ranking Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who has been running the floor in recent days after Schumer tested positive for COVID-19 — would have to file procedural motions to bring the nominations to the Senate floor.
Schumer’s office did not respond to calls for comment on why the nominations have not been brought to the floor.
The leaders of the Environmental Defense Fund, Earthjustice, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council in a joint statement this week urged the Senate "to prioritize floor time" for a vote on Uhlmann's nomination.
Meanwhile, Joe Goffman, a former Senate staffer and EPA employee during the Obama administration, was nominated this spring to lead the air and radiation division at EPA. The committee will vote Wednesday on his nomination, a committee aide said.
The delays linger over an agency that saw staff morale plummet during the Trump administration and its enforcement efforts decline sharply.
Fifty percent of EPA scientists said their morale was “poor” or “extremely” poor in a 2018 survey by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“In addition to addressing the serious environmental issues that are affecting Americans, the next EPA administrator will also need to rebuild an agency suffering from organizational drift and low morale after being repeatedly damaged in recent years by flawed leadership,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said when EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan was confirmed in March 2021.
A series of environmental enforcement metrics — including the number of inspections, criminal investigations, civil cases started or finished, defendants charged and more — dropped by more than 50 percent, on average, in fiscal years 2018 through 2021 compared with previous years, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
Using EPA data, the group compared enforcement statistics of those four years, which overlap with the Trump administration, with the annual average of fiscal years 2002 through 2017.
“Political indifference or hostility to environmental enforcement explains part of the decline, but so do budget cuts that have eliminated more than 22% of EPA’s enforcement workforce since President George W. Bush’s second term,” 55 environment groups and 144 former EPA officials said in letter in May.
An environmental law professor at the University of Michigan, Uhlmann led the environmental crimes section at the Justice Department from 2000 to 2007. After Biden nominated him last summer, the Environment and Public Works panel voted 10-9 to advance his nomination.
But after the congressional session expired, so did his nomination, as well as the nominations of Waterhouse, an environmental law expert and law professor at Howard University, and Amanda Howe, chosen to be assistant administrator for mission support, which manages overall operations of the agency.
While the Senate environment panel voted unanimously in December to support Howe’s nomination, the White House withdrew her nomination in April. The White House has not named a replacement for Howe, and a spokesperson did not respond to questions about a new nominee.
The White House renominated Uhlmann and Waterhouse in January.
Committee Republicans, including ranking member Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, have criticized air and radiation nominee Goffman for his work on the Clean Power Plan — an Obama-era proposal to lower carbon pollution from power plants that never went into effect, and that became the basis for the June Supreme Court ruling limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate power plant emissions.
"The regulations that you authored during the Obama administration, even as they may have provided negligible climate benefits, really ended up hurting, in my state, people and our communities,” Capito told Goffman in May during his confirmation hearing.
Republicans on the committee, led by Capito and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, say they oppose Biden's EPA nominees in large part over agency-wide issues.
Criticizing the EPA’s handling of coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and haze issues, Lummis in January placed holds on all agency nominees. Lummis’ office did not respond to questions about her opposition.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., had placed holds on Biden's EPA nominees in an effort to secure federal approval to establish carbon-capture facilities, which trap and hold emissions before they enter the atmosphere, in his home state. While those holds don't exist anymore, Cassidy will likely block nominees for the agency if they reach the Senate Floor, spokeswoman Sally Fox said.
Capito also opposes Waterhouse and Uhlmann. For Uhlmann, Capito said her opposition stems from the Biden administration’s climate target to halve emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, a move she says the administration has not properly justified.
“At this time, I also remain unable to support Mr. Uhlmann’s nomination because of the Biden EPA’s continued failure to adhere to the basic principle of transparency, especially regarding the U.S. nationally determined contribution,” she said April 7, when the committee voted on both men’s nominations.
A nationally determined contribution is the explanation of how a country plans to meet its climate goals.
For Waterhouse, Capito spokeswoman Kelley Moore, cited statements he made on Twitter in 2015 critical of capitalism as an economic theory.