The shifting influence of the EPA

by Rohan Sinha (’23) | March 10, 2023

Art by Marisea Fisher (’24)

After the train derailment in early February in East Palestine, Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was one of the first government agencies tasked with responding to the regional contamination crisis.

The Biden administration has pointed to the Trump-era rollback of EPA safety regulations on transportation as the cause for such incidents. The Biden White House argued that due to the Trump administration’s lax guidelines governing rail safety, Norfolk Southern decided not to adhere to “common sense” regulations. This argument highlights a broader trend in the EPA: a sluggish restoration of the agency from its diminished form.

The Trump-era EPA triggered the departure of over a thousand scientists, with its workforce decreasing by approximately eight percent despite the agency’s budget remaining stable. Many experts at the time also observed that leadership undervalued their work. This shrinkage of the EPA was by design; many conservatives applauded the disempowerment of the EPA, an agency they had deemed as overstepping its authority.

Under new leadership in the Biden administration, the EPA has regained a more prominent role in policymaking, seeking to revise regulations to meet the president’s climate agenda. For example, the president set a climate goal to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions by fifty percent within the next decade. EPA regulations to limit emissions from vehicles are crucial to meet this goal. 

However, the agency must enforce a tight timeline. The Congressional Review Act authorizes Congress to repeal any agency regulation within sixty legislative days of its enactment. If Republicans obtain full control of Congress in the 2024 elections, they may have the opportunity to overturn EPA regulations enacted in the last months of Biden’s first term.

Although the EPA has obtained some funding from recent legislation passed by congressional Democrats and signed by President Biden, experts are concerned that the EPA’s focus may be directed more towards issuing grants rather than regulating. After all, the agency’s enforcement of regulations against polluters has become increasingly sparse, leading to concern about the ability of the EPA to enforce regulation it effectively enacts.

While the EPA has regained its prominent role in policymaking during the Biden administration, it continues to struggle with understaffing and other unique challenges left by the Trump era. As EPA leaders seek to tackle challenges as large in scope as the climate crisis, their ability to effectively do so remains doubtful.

Categories: Science

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