EPA Administrator Michael Regan defended his agency’s expansive funding request to Congress on Wednesday, but he also fielded lawmaker questions on agency telework policies, the status of a contentious Clean Water Act rule and climate regulations.
In his appearance before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Regan touted the “ambitious and transformative plan,” to fund the agency, saying, “Simply put, investing in EPA is investing in America.”
While the agency has been bolstered with funding from President Joe Biden’s landmark climate and infrastructure laws, it is now being tasked with moving billions of taxpayer dollars — albeit on a stretched staff.
Biden’s budget request aims to address that. EPA would receive almost $12.1 billion in fiscal 2024. That would be a $1.9 billion or 19 percent increase over current funds and add about 2,000 full-time positions to the payroll, according to the agency’s congressional justification.
At the hearing, Republicans said they were shocked at the size of EPA’s request, especially considering the funds the agency is already receiving under the 2021 infrastructure law and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. Democrats countered it was time to fund EPA, which had faced flat or declining budgets for years (Greenwire, March 22).
Here are five takeaways from Regan’s first Capitol Hill appearance this year.
High workload, bigger budget
Regan returned to a familiar theme during his testimony: EPA needs more funding to get the job done.
His staff is already overworked, coming in six to seven days a week. EPA employees, while grateful for last year’s budget boost, still need more resources.
“We absolutely need these bodies that we’re requesting,” Regan said when Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) asked him about increased funding for EPA’s air office.
“We all know that there are more financial needs in this country than the $15 billion,” Regan told Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), discussing the infrastructure law’s spending to replace lead pipes. “That’s why this budget request is so important.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the EPW panel, remarked that EPA has not fully implemented the reformed Toxic Substances Control Act because of lack of staff at the agency.
“We think your workload has increased dramatically,” Carper said.
Republican senators were not on board with the Biden administration’s largest budget plan for EPA yet.
“It’s simply impossible for EPA to absorb and responsibly spend the amount of money that is being requested,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said.
Telework under scrutiny
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the committee’s ranking member, had questions about EPA’s staffing, too — specifically, where and how they were working since the Covid-19 pandemic set in.
“This year’s budget proposal suggests, however, that ‘back in the office’ does not mean actually present in the office,” Capito said. “We are heating and cooling massive and nearly uninhabited buildings three years after the pandemic started.”
She later asked Regan how many employees are in the office five days a week.
“Most of our employees are working on a hybrid schedule, just like the rest of the federal government and corporate America,” Regan said, adding the agency is meeting its performance targets.
When the virus outbreak first hit the United States in March 2020, much of the federal workforce worked from home. Last year, EPA had staff return to the office but allowed employees to continue to telework for much of the week if they chose to do so.
Capito requested more information on how many people are in the office at the agency and how often.
“Something that I’m deeply concerned about [is] what kind of culture we’re creating here, if nobody’s seeing anybody and nobody’s in the same workplace,” she said.
EPA’s “Waters of the U.S.” rule, a perennial target for lawmakers, was again a hot topic at Wednesday’s hearing.
“We have 25 states that are saying, ‘We don’t want WOTUS,'” Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said. “Do you not take that in consideration at all? Or you just say, ‘Hey, Washington knows best. Forget you all; we’re going do what we want?'”
The rule, meant to protect wetlands under EPA’s Clean Water Act authority, has been blocked in Texas and Idaho due to a court ruling earlier this week. The Supreme Court, in its Sackett vs. EPA case, might limit it further later this summer.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) thanked Regan for visiting his state but said his constituents still think the WOTUS rule “comes up way, way, way short.”
Regan disagreed. “In this rule, I think we threaded a very good needle,” he said.
Capito argued EPA’s resources for drafting the rule could have been used elsewhere.
“It concerns me that the EPA water office could have been prioritizing PFAS instead of writing the WOTUS rule, which is going to have to be changed in all likelihood after the Supreme Court makes its decision this summer,” the ranking member said, referring to the “forever chemicals” responsible for widespread contamination.
Climate rules check-in
At last year’s budget hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pressed Regan on EPA’s slow going on climate regulations. This time, he praised the administrator on greenhouse gas rules.
“Congratulations on the progress that seems to be coming on GHG emissions rules and regulations. I appreciate that very much,” Whitehouse said, then asked when those measures will be rolled out.
Regan said rules for heavy-duty and light-duty vehicles will be out in “the coming weeks” while regulations controlling the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are for “late April.”
Republican senators were less appreciative of EPA’s moves on climate.
Capito took aim at the Inflation Reduction Act, which will send $41.5 billion to the agency for climate and environmental justice programs. She pointed to EPA modeling that shows the law could have a stark impact on power generation.
“The IRA is a gut punch to the coal and gas industry,” she said. Capito added she is worried about potential job losses in Appalachia and the natural gas industry.
No drama on train wreck
Earlier this month, the committee held the first congressional hearing on the fiery train crash and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio. The Feb. 3 accident garnered national attention, including for EPA, now leading the cleanup effort.
But Regan did not have to put on a repeat performance at Wednesday’s hearing. He wasn’t pressed over the agency’s response, although environmentalists have been critical at times.
The administrator mentioned he has visited the small town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Senators made passing references to the Norfolk Southern Corp. train derailment, as well.
“At this moment in history, Americans want a well-resourced EPA that takes action to protect your health and our environment,” Carper said, “especially when tragic accidents occur, like the recent Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.”
Lawmakers may question Regan about East Palestine yet. The administrator is expected to testify at more budget hearings in the weeks ahead. In addition, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to hold a hearing next week on the government’s response to the crash and its aftermath, though witnesses have not yet been announced.