‘Maximum urgency and de facto risk’ — EPA braces for 2024

By Kevin Bogardus | 01/12/2024 01:28 PM EST

The agency has a broad agenda it wants to fulfill this year. Can EPA get it done before the presidential election?

EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, pictured at a hearing on Capitol Hill, faces a busy year ahead to finalize key Biden administration environmental rules. Francis Chung/POLITICO

In 2024, EPA will be on the defensive and rushing to meet deadlines as the agency aims to wrap up far-reaching regulations and distribute billions of dollars across the country.

EPA needs to soon cement protections on air, climate and water to avoid those rules being buried by a Republican-led Congress and White House in 2025 if the coming elections turn against Democrats. In addition, the agency has to implement President Joe Biden’s trademark climate and infrastructure laws, standing up new programs and bringing on fresh staff to manage historic funding flowing through EPA.

It’s a tall order to accomplish in what may be a chaotic year. The agency will have to rush out regulations and funds before the possible return of former President Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner who targeted environmental protections during his administration.


Former EPA Administrator William Reilly told E&E News the agency’s status now is “one of maximum urgency and de facto risk,” considering the uncertain politics it’s facing.

“The EPA situation in the midst of an election period is always a delicate one,” said Reilly, who led the agency during the George H.W. Bush administration. “You’re not supposed to, as EPA administrator, campaign, but the backwash of a lot of political stuff will affect the agency.”

Christine Todd Whitman, formerly head of EPA during the George W. Bush administration, said “at a potential end of a term, you push all the regs out that you can. The ugly babies go out.”

She added, “I expect EPA to be aggressive as they can be.” Time is short for the agency on crafting its rules, especially if Biden loses his reelection bid in 2024.

“They know if it’s Trump, that will be the end of them. That could be the end of the agency as it exists,” Whitman said.

EPA also has been transformed into a massive funding hub under the Biden administration. The agency has been slated more than $100 billion in additional spending over the coming years from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act combined.

“They have a lot of decisions to make and money to move out under the infrastructure and IRA laws,” said Carol Browner, EPA’s longest-serving administrator who led the agency during the Clinton administration.

Those funds will help rebuild water systems, clean up Superfund sites, finance capital for clean energy and aid marginalized communities long burdened with pollution. The money has already started moving out the door, as EPA earlier this week awarded nearly $1 billion in grants under the infrastructure law for electric and low-emission school buses.

“I give EPA kudos for getting a lot done with a lot of new things on their plate. They deserve credit,” Browner said. “I think they’ve done a nice job of keeping things moving.”

EPA now rolls into this year off a 2023 that activists have called history-making.

“It just has to be said that 2023 was just an incredible year when it comes to levels of financial assistance to disadvantaged communities, tribal communities, [environmental justice] communities,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, an environmental justice advocate for more than three decades. “I would like to be proven wrong, but I don’t think it is going to happen at this level again in my lifetime.”

‘Big year’ for rules

Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told EPA staff in an internal email obtained by E&E News that 2024 will be “a big year” for the agency’s regulatory programs, with rules coming for climate pollution, wetlands protections, air quality and drinking water.

“I want each rule writer, regulatory development team member, economist, scientist, ecologist, biologist, and public health officer to know that Administrator Regan and I have got your back as you make your way through your work this year,” McCabe said in the email sent last week. “We have an important job to do, and I am confident that together we will deliver.”

The Supreme Court this year is expected to weigh in on a key EPA rule meant to reduce cross-state air pollution, and litigation likely will follow other major agency regulations finished in 2024.

Rules not completed by springtime, some estimate, may be open to being overturned quickly by the next administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill under the Congressional Review Act. Regulations finalized later this year could carry over to 2025 and be pulled back if Biden loses reelection.

“The Congressional Review Act is the specter that hangs over any last year of a presidential administration,” said Joseph Brazauskas, who led the Trump EPA’s congressional and intergovernmental relations office. “There is going to be a real hustle to get rules out before that look-back period begins.”

Regulations don’t come much bigger than EPA’s standards for power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions, which are expected to be finalized this April.

“That is going to be the major regulatory piece we see coming out of EPA,” said Brazauskas, now senior counsel at the Policy Resolution Group at law firm Bracewell, about the climate rule.

Other rules are under scrutiny. Lisa Frank, executive director of Environment America’s Washington legislative office, is looking forward to EPA’s tougher standards on particulate matter, commonly known as soot, which are now expected by the end of this month.

“America has made huge gains on air quality over the years, but we are starting to see that come undone by wildfire smoke,” Frank said. “It’s really critical we do everything we can to secure stronger air protections.”

In addition, Frank is watching out for EPA actions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — including the hazardous waste designation for PFOA and PFOS and drinking water standards for some members of the “forever chemicals” family — as well as the revised Lead and Copper Rule for drinking water systems.

“We want to make sure that the final rule remains strong on removing lead pipes,” she said about the latter.

Gwen Keyes Fleming, who served as EPA Region 4 administrator and chief of staff at the agency during the Obama administration, is on the lookout for PFAS rules as well.

“That is the top game-changer,” said Keyes Fleming, now a partner and co-chair of the environmental practice group at law firm DLA Piper. “Each and every office has some say on what happens with that suite of chemicals.”

More cash to come

EPA has moved serious money under the climate and infrastructure laws.

Administrator Michael Regan told agency employees in a holiday message last month that EPA has provided under the infrastructure law $13 billion to improve water infrastructure and $1 billion to expedite cleanups at Superfund sites.

Funds are heading to environmental justice communities, too. That includes $600 million for large grantmaking organizations, EPA announced in December.

And the cash will keep coming for several programs. The climate law allots community groups $2 billion, which will be awarded on a rolling basis in 2024, while the agency is accepting applications until the end of January for another round of clean school bus rebates.

“It’s an election year. They’re going to want to get that money out. They’re going to want to show it’s being spent,” said Doug Benevento, who served as acting EPA deputy administrator during the Trump administration. “I think you will see Congress and the [inspector general] ask, ‘Is that money being spent wisely?'”

Browner warned EPA needs to be wary of trouble with GOP lawmakers during campaign season.

“The first thing that you need to watch out for is the fact that you have a Republican House and oversight hearings,” Browner said. “I think that the reason, in and of themselves, they’re problematic, but I would think secondly, they can reverberate over into a campaign easily.”

EPA’s workforce has expanded during the Biden administration. The agency hired 1,977 new employees in 2023, surpassing its own hiring goal by nearly 200 staffers.

As of Jan. 1, EPA had 15,937 employees, agency spokesperson Remmington Belford told E&E News.

Whitman expects EPA might struggle to boost staffing in 2024.

“Those who don’t support the agency will be watching, and if they see the agency growing, they will raise holy heck,” Whitman said. “[EPA] may need it, but it’s not a strategic thing to do this year.”

The agency’s core budget may be tighter this year as Congress works out long-term funding for fiscal 2024. Lawmakers need to move quickly, too, as under a two-tiered stopgap spending measure, EPA and other agencies are set to run out of funds by Feb. 2.

“We hope a shutdown is averted,” said Marie Owens Powell, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 8,000 EPA employees.

The agency may have a new contract with its largest union in 2024, which would set workplace conditions for years.

EPA and the council entered into mediation for bargaining in December. Discussions during this phase are confidential, but the union president expressed optimism that a contract would be reached this year.

“What I can say is I’m very hopeful that we’ll reach an agreement soon,” Powell said.

EPA waits for nominees

Meanwhile, the agency still does not have its full cohort of political leadership in place.

Earlier this week, Senate Democrats pulled a motion to advance Joe Goffman, the EPA air nominee who has been waiting for confirmation for almost two years. And Radhika Fox, head of the water program since 2021, is leaving by the end of next month.

Also, the White House has no pending nominees to lead EPA’s environmental justice, mission support and solid waste offices either.

Securing confirmation for any of Biden’s picks grows tougher by the day, as floor time is scarce with senators itching to jump on the campaign trail.

“It is going to become more and more difficult to move nominees,” said Benevento, now a partner at law firm Holland and Hart. “Holding nominees to get the attention of EPA is going to become more acute, especially for people in cycle.”

Miller-Travis, who is an executive vice president at Metropolitan Group, a social change agency, questioned whether the politics would line up to approve EPA nominees. But she was pleased with staff already there.

“The people who are operating in an acting capacity are doing a pretty damn good job,” she said.

Belford with EPA referred E&E News to the White House regarding the agency’s nominees. White House press officials didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

Surprises may await the agency in 2024. This past year, EPA was in the national spotlight as it helped respond to disasters such as the train wreck and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, as well as the wildfires in Maui, Hawaii.

Stan Meiburg, who served 39 years at EPA, including as acting deputy administrator during the Obama administration, anticipates such a catastrophe could happen again, warranting the agency’s attention.

“It’s almost inevitable in an election year that something unexpected will occur, whether some form of an accidental release or extreme weather event that requires EPA emergency response resources,” said Meiburg, now executive director of Wake Forest University’s Sabin Center for Environment and Sustainability.