This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. EDT to include comment from EPA.
U.S. EPA plans to shift its environmental justice and environmental review operations closer to Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to agency employees, a move that critics say politicizes those offices.
Agency officials have informed staff in the past week that the environmental justice office and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) office will be moved from their current home in the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to the Office of Policy, EPA staff told E&E News. Because the policy office is housed organizationally within Pruitt’s office, some view it as an effort by political employees to exert more influence over their work.
Cynthia Giles, who led EPA’s enforcement office under President Obama, said she found reports of the moves "very concerning."
The Trump administration has "already signaled that they intended to zero out the environmental justice work, so presumably this idea of shifting the office is not a move to enhance environmental justice," she said, referring to the White House 2018 budget request that would eliminate funding for EPA’s environmental justice programs.
Giles added, "The only reason I can think of to move the NEPA function" from where it is now to the policy office "is to inject politics."
The policy office, located within the administrator’s office, is headed by Samantha Dravis, a longtime conservative political operative hired by Pruitt earlier this year. The position doesn’t require Senate confirmation.
Dravis previously worked with Pruitt at the Republican Attorneys General Association, where she was policy director and general counsel. She was also president of the Rule of Law Defense Fund and legal counsel at Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which is linked to the Koch brothers’ network of conservative-leaning donors. She worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and was associate director for political affairs in the George W. Bush White House.
The environmental justice and NEPA offices would answer to political appointees even if they were to stay in the enforcement shop. Trump has nominated Susan Bodine to lead the enforcement office. But current and former EPA employees say the move would make it easier for political officials to oversee their operations.
Dravis said in an interview today that the moves are about organizational efficiency, not politics.
"I view this move as indicating that Administrator Pruitt values the office of environmental justice and values that function and it’s not going to be eliminated; it’s going to continue," she said. She added that the NEPA review activities will be better positioned in the policy office, which is charged with coordinating with other federal agencies.
The reorganization is planned for Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
Staff were informed during meetings and on conference calls in recent days about the administration’s plans, according to EPA employees.
The agency’s environmental justice office will be moved in its entirety from the enforcement office to the policy office, said one employee informed about the plans. The Office of Federal Activities — which now includes the NEPA compliance division and the international compliance assurance division — will be split, that person said.
NEPA staff will be transferred to the policy office, while the international component of the office will be shifted to the Office of Land and Emergency Management. EPA intends to create a new permitting policy division within the Office of Federal Activities to streamline permitting procedures, the employee said.
Relocating the NEPA staff comes amid a broader administration push to speed up environmental permitting. NEPA requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of major actions that significantly affect the environment. EPA’s NEPA compliance office is tasked with reviewing other agencies’ environmental impact statements.
One EPA employee said there are concerns about whether the NEPA office will continue to achieve its mission within the policy shop. While the move might seem innocuous, it is not, that person added. EPA staff have been instructed to limit their comments on NEPA reviews, and employees are concerned that members of Congress will attempt to eliminate EPA’s authority to review other agencies’ NEPA analyses.
Giles said EPA’s reviews don’t add time to the process and are valuable to other agencies. "It’s much faster for agencies to find and fix the problems in advance rather than waiting to get sued," she said.
In one of his first big energy moves, President Trump revoked a document issued by the Obama administration that instructed federal agencies on how to account for climate change in their NEPA reviews.
"Climate change is real, and it’s having very important environmental impacts, and therefore, courts have already been telling federal agencies that they need to consider it when they look at environmental impacts under NEPA," Giles said.
Some conservatives have been pushing the Trump administration to eliminate the EPA enforcement office in its entirety.
Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, led Trump’s EPA transition team. Last month, he sent a list to the White House of the EPA programs he’d like to see axed, which included the enforcement office (Climatewire, Aug. 16).
Under Ebell’s plan, the functions of the enforcement shop could be returned to program offices. Clean Air Act enforcement, for example, would be handled by the air office.
One EPA employee expects that the new administration "will want to emphasize the work that they like and de-emphasize the work that they don’t like." That person added, "I may be too optimistic, but I’m encouraged that these programs will continue."