EPA:

Voluntary programs under scrutiny as regulatory obligations rise

As U.S. EPA ramps up regulatory activities in climate change and other arenas, the agency may cut back some of its many voluntary programs in an effort to funnel resources toward regulations, a top official said this week.

Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy, the agency's top air regulator, said her office would scrutinize where it is putting money and employees and consider shifting away from voluntary programs that proliferated in recent years.

"I believe that we've made tremendous progress with the voluntary programs, but if we're going to begin to regulate more effectively, some of the voluntary programs may no longer be the priority issues and we may want to shift resources," McCarthy told a panel of EPA air quality advisers at a meeting in Arlington, Va., this week.

"There are many areas where the past administrations have been less willing to move forward with regulatory requirements, and we are willing and they are the better strategy, so that means we need to relook at what we do," she said.

McCarthy's comments come as the air office plows forward with initiatives to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and conventional air pollutants and in the wake of President Obama's proposal this week to trim EPA's fiscal 2011 budget by 3 percent from 2010 levels.

Voluntary programs have proliferated across EPA's program offices, ranging from the well-known Energy Star program for household appliances to the lesser known Green Racing Initiative, which uses race cars to develop new energy efficiency measures for motor vehicles, and the Carpet America Recovery Effort, designed to increase carpet recycling and reuse.

In 2008, the agency operated 46 voluntary programs, with about half of those run out of EPA's air office.

While the George W. Bush administration championed such initiatives, the Obama EPA has sought to shift resources away from some of these programs as it takes on broad new regulatory initiatives.

Just after taking office in March 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson halted the National Environmental Performance Track Program, an initiative that rewarded corporations' voluntary pollution controls with reduced environmental inspections and less stringent regulation (Greenwire, March 16, 2009).

The Bush administration had championed that program, but environmentalists denounced it as a public relations stunt.

Environmentalists have applauded EPA's willingness to re-evaluate the usefulness of voluntary initiatives.

John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it "good management" to reconsider some of these initiatives. Although some of the programs can help fill regulatory gaps, others represent logical targets for elimination or contraction as EPA faces funding cuts.

"It was very obvious to all observers that the Bush administration used voluntary programs as an excuse not to regulate and as an active tool to subvert regulations," Walke said in an interview. "And nowhere was that more clear than climate change."

Now, Walke added, "EPA's attention is turning rightly toward regulation and mandatory reporting."

Jeff Holmstead, former EPA air chief under the Bush administration, said he agreed that there are many voluntary programs at EPA that are of questionable value. "It's certainly sensible, especially given the need to reduce the size of government, to try to either eliminate or consolidate programs that have grown over time," he said.

Still, Holmstead said, it would be a mistake for EPA to cut voluntary programs indiscriminately. "There are some voluntary programs that are quite successful," he said. "I hope they are successful in separating the wheat from the chaff."

Holmstead disputed the notion that the Bush administration relied on or invested more in voluntary programs than any other administration, saying that officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations sought to start new programs in order to leave their mark on the agency. And once in place, those programs can be tough to cut.

If the Obama administration tries to slash voluntary programs, "they will get pushback for almost anything they try to cut, because all of these programs have a constituency," Holmstead said.

Some EPA voluntary programs seem safe for now, including the joint Energy Department-EPA Energy Star initiative. The program received a $2 million boost in Obama's proposed 2011 budget.

"I don't want it to be a signal that we're disinvesting in our voluntary programs," McCarthy told the advisory panel, "but more of a signal that we have to look at the priorities ahead and see whether those voluntary programs should mature, whether they should change."

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