State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Michael Regan and the Reconstruction of the U.S. EPA

Many agencies of our national government suffered from neglect during the four years of Donald Trump’s anti-governmental reign as president, but EPA was already damaged when Trump arrived. Writing on this issue a year ago, I noted that EPA reduced:

“…staff during the Obama years from 17,049 in 2009 to 14,777 in 2016 and was further reduced [under Trump] to 14,172 in 2019. Funding has been reduced from a peak of $10.3 billion in FY 2010 to $8.8 billion in FY 2019. These data do not account for inflation so the reductions over the past decade are underplayed by these figures.”

The damage to EPA’s organizational capacity and morale was exacerbated by an anti-regulatory, anti-science president who did not support the mission of the agency and appointed agency leadership committed to EPA’s de-construction. Umair Irfan, writing in Vox, recently reported that:

“In a letter last year, six former EPA administrators, Republicans and Democrats, noted that the EPA’s budget under Ronald Reagan was 50 percent higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than it is today. Staffing has declined 22 percent since 1999 and more losses may be coming soon. About one-third of EPA scientists are now eligible to retire. So Regan will have to deal with long-running budget and staffing constraints. Regan will also have to find a way to raise low morale at the agency, particularly among career civil servants who saw their work derided and neglected under the previous administration.”

I admit that I take the Environmental Protection Agency’s demise personally. For the first two decades of my professional career, much of my work focused on EPA. In 1977, I helped staff the agency’s working group on public participation in water programs. In 1979 and 1980, I was part of the group that helped launch Superfund and drafted the agency’s community relations policy during toxic waste clean-ups. In the mid-1980s, I was a consultant to the leaking underground storage tank program and co-authored a book about it with Ron Brand, the program’s first director. A number of my students have gone to work at EPA, and for many years it had a reputation as a small, competent and mission-driven organization. For me, the time I served at EPA was a period of great intellectual and professional growth. I worked with some of the smartest, most talented, committed and hardworking people I’ve ever known. My affection for the agency I knew remains, although it is now mingled with great sadness for what has been lost over the years.

EPA was born in an effort to address the damage to the planet caused by human technology. We enjoy many benefits from our technology, but if the last year has taught us anything, it is that human mastery of nature should never be assumed. We need to study ecosystem dynamics and understand the impact of our actions on the planet’s natural systems. When those actions damage the planet and its living systems — from climate to COVID — we need to mitigate the causes of that damage. In the 1980s, we began to understand that the environment was essentially an issue of public health. Dirty air wasn’t simply unsightly but deadly. Rather than expand our scientific capacity to address those issues and enhance our policy designs to prevent and adapt to environmental insults, we attacked the science and began dismantling the organizational capacity we had created to protect the environment.

Now it is time to rebuild EPA and create an agency that is serious about earth systems science, regulatory enforcement and environmental justice. It also must help John Kerry in his effort to revive climate diplomacy. Even though America is the worst greenhouse polluter in the world, we still “only” emit 15% of the planet’s greenhouse gasses. Decarbonization and attacking all sources of greenhouse gasses cannot work without global cooperation. But we cannot play a leadership role globally if we do not get our own act together.

With his Senate confirmation accomplished, Michael Regan can now take his place as EPA administrator. Regan is an experienced, competent environmental professional. He ran North Carolina’s environmental agency for four years and spent a decade in EPA’s Air Division. He spent eight years working on clean energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. His work on environmental justice issues helped him secure the job at EPA. He also has impressive political skills, which he demonstrated during his confirmation process. According to Politico’s Alex Guillen:

“Regan has been able to avoid some of the Republican criticism directed at other Biden officials who held top jobs in the Obama administration, including White House climate advisers Gina McCarthy and John Kerry, sidestepping partisan ire over old wounds. He also deftly navigated the confirmation process, avoiding taking stances on most policies, promising to listen to all sides before deciding on key regulations, and pledging to visit so many red states that Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) joked that Regan “might be visiting the entire country.” His Republican home state senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, helped propel his nomination by introducing him at his hearing and burnishing his reputation for outreach to North Carolina’s agricultural sector.”

While every policy issue in our polarized political environment seems to be contentious, protecting the environment could be depoliticized to some degree. There is a strong public consensus behind the goals of clean air and water and support for climate policy continues to grow. In my view, the new administrator should focus on building scientific, management and regulatory capacity and avoid high visibility, low impact symbolic battles. A high-visibility, high-impact issue he should take on is environmental justice. Given his track record in North Carolina and his personal history, I doubt anyone could stop him from working to promote environmental justice and equity. As Andy Kroll reported in Rolling Stone when discussing his record running North Carolina’s environmental agency:

“During one of his first speeches after being picked for DEQ secretary, Regan said the agency had  “a special obligation to the underserved and under-represented.” He underscored the commitment to environmental justice by quoting a Union Army commander: “Let’s fight them till hell freezes over and then we’ll fight them on the ice.”

Regan’s professionalism and style should serve him and the nation well. In Kroll’s insightful Rolling Stone piece. Regan summarized his approach to climate policymaking, stating his:

“…belief that forging consensus was essential to enacting environmental policies with staying power. That a top-down approach wasn’t the best way to make the changes the climate crisis demands. “We’re not going to regulate our way out of this,” he says. “It really is: ‘How do we look at it in a holistic way?’ There are multiple ways to do things, and you can find win-win opportunities. And typically those opportunities or solutions last the longest.”

The entire Biden team will need to rebuild agencies that have been neglected by the Trump Administration’s team of generally incompetent, often inexperienced, anti-government ideologues. Regan certainly has a tough job ahead. But we have a president committed to using a wide variety of federal powers to protect the environment. Presidential diplomacy, the federal government’s purchasing power, and the possible $2 trillion infrastructure program will all be directed toward building a green economy. When coupled with a newly activated system of environmental law and regulation, the next four years should undo the damage of the past four years and put America back on the path of effective environmental policy.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Alexandra Lutz
Alexandra Lutz
3 years ago

Like you, I take the EPA’s demise personally. I am a research professor working in water and have seen Superfund sites stalled. Or not even started. Michael Regan will bring much-needed science to back to EPA and environmental justice is sure to be a priority on his agenda. Thank you for highlighting these important issues! -Alexandra Lutz