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Biden must count on agencies for environmental agenda

Republicans in Congress promise close scrutiny of EPA, Interior

A law passed last year gives the EPA more money to monitor methane emissions. Flared natural gas is seen burning off at the Deadwood natural gas plant at Garden City, Texas, in 2015.
A law passed last year gives the EPA more money to monitor methane emissions. Flared natural gas is seen burning off at the Deadwood natural gas plant at Garden City, Texas, in 2015. (Getty Images)

In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden will be able to tout environmental wins, but any further federal action will largely depend on the pace set by the executive branch.

In his speech last year Biden largely discussed climate in the context of savings that energy efficiency measures could provide the average family and the effects that could have on inflation. Ultimately, that became the same pitch for the $369 billion climate, health care and tax law that Biden signed in August.

Climate modelers estimated that as implemented the bill could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent by the end of the decade. That would place the U.S. significantly closer to the Biden administration’s goal of reducing emissions 50 to 52 percent by the end of the decade, which it announced after rejoining the Paris Agreement in April 2021.

“The president and his administration have many accomplishments to tout — including passing a historic plan for climate and affordable clean energy, as well as investing in communities historically overburdened by pollution,” said Margie Alt, director of Climate Action Campaign. “However, he still has more work to do in order to meet his promise to cut climate pollution by at least half by 2030 and ensure clean air and environmental justice for all.”

With the bill signed into law and a slew of other environmental rulemakings currently underway at federal agencies, environmental groups are urging the Biden administration to finalize stringent regulations in order to help achieve the remaining 10-percentage-point reduction.

“We’ve seen the mess with what’s happening in the Congress, the House Republicans could barely choose a leader, let alone shepherd an energy agenda that will pass muster,” said Jamal Raad, director of Evergreen Action. “The climate focus must be on executive action, state leadership, and making sure we implement the IRAs investment dollars equitably, efficiently and rapidly.”

Last year’s law provided the EPA with money for programs such as monitoring methane emissions and grants to help support communities seeking to right past environmental injustices that brought them higher levels of pollution. And the agency is also in the process of administering programs authorized through the bipartisan infrastructure law signed in November 2021, which provided funding to reduce pollution and upgrade water infrastructure by replacing lead service lines.

Restoring and adding

At the same time, the EPA is working both to undo some of the regulatory rollbacks of the previous administration and establish new regulations in areas, such as with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, where Congress struggled to find bipartisan consensus on comprehensive legislation despite a push last session.

Under Biden the EPA has received larger budgets and been able to increase hiring. However the total workforce still stands at just under 15,000, down from a high under the Clinton administration and closer to figures from the 1980s, leaving the agency with fewer employees to oversee more programs.

The Office of Management and Budget in January released its unified agenda outlining regulatory plans for federal agencies, which pushed back a number of self-imposed deadlines for environmental regulations. Some of these rules, such as standards for mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, are not anticipated to be finalized until 2024.

Any further delays may leave the rules vulnerable to reconsideration under a future potential Republican Congress and administration, as the Trump administration did with a number of rules finalized in the last months of the Obama administration.

Until then, the administration may face a more difficult environment in Congress, with Republicans calling for significant cuts in nondefense spending. Many in the House majority have also been critical of the EPA’s effort to regulate certain sectors of the economy.

But Raad, whose group released a report last month calling on the agency to go further and faster, said the administration needs to get these rules “over the finish line.”

“They can’t let House Republican witch hunts, investigations or threats of future cuts delay this important work,” said Raad.