Pruitt goal for reg reviews a bridge too far for EPA

By Sean Reilly | 06/30/2020 04:18 PM EDT

This story was updated at 9:11 p.m. EDT.

In mid-2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt trumpeted a newfound emphasis on conducting air standards reviews within a five-year window set by the Clean Air Act.

Now, in the first self-imposed test of that policy, EPA officials appear to be tacitly admitting defeat.

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A hastily launched review of ground-level ozone standards was supposed to conclude this October, or exactly five years after the last assessment ended. Instead, it’s now scheduled to finish next January, according to a timetable included in a roster of regulatory priorities released today.

In an email after this story was first published, EPA spokeswoman Molly Block disputed that the agency would miss the cutoff. The schedule released today reflects the final rule’s estimated publication date in the Federal Register, Block said. The rule will be signed by the end of this year, she added, "very much in line with the five-year timeline for review."

Also running late is another top administration priority: a planned overhaul of New Source Review permitting regulations for coal-fired power plants. That proposed revamp was initially part of the agency’s draft Affordable Clean Energy rule released in 2018, but it was then cut from the final version published last summer (Greenwire, July 3, 2019). Last fall, EPA predicted the final version would be out by this past March. Now the agency is aiming for the end of this year, according to the new agenda.

The roster, released by the White House Office of Management and Budget as part of a bigger rulemaking rundown for executive branch agencies, doesn’t provide an explanation for the delays.

The odds of completing the review of the ozone standards by this October have always been stiff, given that EPA jump-started it only two years ago. In an official plan released last year, EPA career staffers had quietly noted that they could need until the first quarter of next year to finish (Greenwire, Aug. 30, 2019). Even if the final rule is signed by December, that would be later than the October deadline set by Pruitt in his May 2018 "back-to-basics" memo.

Traditionally, the legally required reviews have sometimes lasted years longer than scheduled, meaning the practical impact of any delay could be nil, particularly because current EPA chief Andrew Wheeler is expected to propose to keep the 70-parts-per-billion ozone standard set in 2015. That proposed rule, originally scheduled for release in late spring, will be out shortly, Block said.

But by their insistence on sticking to the statutory schedule, Pruitt and Wheeler gave the issue an outsize importance it would not have otherwise had, even as air office employees struggled to manage the resulting workload. A higher-stakes review of particulate matter standards remains on track to end by December, according to the roster.

"It’s just a lot for EPA to do," said John Bachmann, a former senior air official who is now part of the Environmental Protection Network, an advocacy group opposed to Trump administration policies.

Like other critics, Bachmann has questioned whether the administration’s desire to complete the reviews this year is motivated as much by seeing them done before the end of President Trump’s current term as by adherence to the law.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is supposed to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone, particulates and four other pollutants every five years to determine whether those limits are still adequate to protect public health and the environment in light of the latest research on their effects. In reality, EPA has rarely met the statutory schedule.

In the May 2018 memo, however, Pruitt stressed its importance by signaling the start of the ozone standards review "so EPA will be ready to finalize any necessary revisions" by this October (Greenwire, May 10, 2018).

Wheeler, who took over after Pruitt was later forced out, has also underscored the importance of compliance with the Clean Air Act’s timeline. In abandoning the use of outside panels to provide independent scientific expertise to the reviews, for example, Wheeler described the step as a streamlining move motivated by the need for punctuality.

As recently as April, Wheeler highlighted his intent to complete the ozone standards review at least by year’s end.

"The difficulty of this task is not lost on me," he wrote the chairman of an agency advisory committee. But he added later, "It is important for everyone to remember that the Clean Air Act envisions a continual NAAQS review. As soon as one five-year review ends, the next five-year review begins."

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