EPA staff gathered recently to review epic funding slated for the agency and what it would mean for fighting climate change and championing environmental justice.
Agency employees packed into the Aug. 25 all-hands meeting held in EPA headquarters’ Green Room to discuss the Inflation Reduction Act, which would send once unimaginable resources to EPA over the coming years. A video recording of the event, obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act, captures the day’s celebratory mood.
In opening remarks, Administrator Michael Regan called the law “absolutely, unequivocally, a game changer” for EPA, slating more than $40 billion for the agency. “That’s billion with a b coming to our agency,” he said, noting there was another $60 billion appropriated to EPA under the infrastructure law passed last year.
“Folks, by my simple math, that’s a hundred billion dollars,” Regan said to applause. “Needless to say, that gives us a little bit of walking around money.”
EPA’s joy over the measure is also evident in a short clip of Regan’s speech, posted on his Instagram account and played over Curtis Mayfield’s soul classic “Move On Up.” Others were elated too at the event.
Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe called it an “unbelievably exciting time.”
“There are many of us at EPA that have been working literally for decades to see this day come and to see Congress do what they did and the president do what he did,” McCabe said.
Other EPA officials also spoke at the gathering, which ran close to 35 minutes. They described their disbelief at the resources flowing into the agency.
“The IRA and infrastructure law, for the first time, I think, give us as an agency the tools that we need and the resources that we need to really address this challenge,” said Paul Gunning, director of the Climate Change Division in EPA’s atmospheric programs office, referring to climate change. “To me, that’s inspirational. It’s motivational, and I know it is for staff across the agency and [the Office of Air and Radiation].”
“The amount of money that we’re talking about feels absolutely unreal,” said Laura Ebbert, director of EPA Region 9’s Tribal, Intergovernmental and Policy Division. She listed EPA programs that stand to benefit, from electrifying ports to home weatherization.
“I’m excited about the fact that this big-dollar amount gives us a chance at last to move away from a triage mindset,” Ebbert said. “I really appreciate the chance to fall back on the idea that we know how to do this work. We know what success looks like. We have great examples that we can amplify.”
“I just wish you were more enthusiastic,” Regan joked in response, garnering laughs from the crowd.
EPA will receive $41.5 billion over the next 10 years from the Inflation Reduction Act. A slide deck prepared by the agency for a Clean Air Act Advisory Committee meeting last month goes into greater detail about that figure, including that those funds will support 24 new and existing EPA programs.
That includes $5 billion in climate pollution reduction grants; $3 billion for environmental justice block grants: $3 billion to install zero-emission technology at ports; and $1 billion for clean heavy-duty vehicles.
Also, part of that sum is $27 billion in competitive grants to local and state governments and nonprofit groups to capitalize investments in clean energy and pollution reduction. Regan said in an interview with E&E News last week that EPA is on “a tight timeline” to start the grant-making process for that pot of money by early next year (Greenwire, Oct. 21).
The law’s funding will also help support the agency’s regulatory agenda as it looks to boost cleaner energy on the road.
“As we think about the transportation sector, we’re seeing a lot of change and a lot of excitement about electrification but that’s not going to just get done by market forces,” said Karl Simon, director of the Transportation and Climate Division in EPA’s transportation and air quality office, adding he thinks the agency has “an incredible role” to play in the effort.
He noted President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the agency to draft rules to help meet a mandate that 50 percent of all new cars and trucks sold in 2030 are electric vehicles.
“The air program is busy working on those rules, those important rulemakings,” Simon said. “The funding that we have, the opportunity to implement, is very much complementary of that and will help drive that change in the marketplace we have there.”
With EPA’s push for electric cars, Regan teased he has been told he can no longer say “put your foot on the gas” in briefings with Simon and his staff.
“We’re going to have to rethink all our metaphors,” McCabe added.
Ebbert spoke about the law’s environmental justice block grants and how they can empower communities long plagued with pollution. Those grants have $3 billion in funding.
“This funding represents an opportunity for us to really invest big money in these communities in a way that they can help tailor solutions that affect real change to problems that have confounded this agency and these communities for decades,” Ebbert said. “I think about myself as a professional enabler, and I really see this money as an opportunity to enable communities to make real change.”
‘Get the money out the door’
Kimberly Patrick, acting associate administrator for EPA’s Office of Mission Support, stressed it was time for the agency to move quickly. Her office oversees hiring as well as grants and contracts at EPA.
“I told my folks, it’s all hands on deck. And that includes the entire agency. It’s all hands on deck,” Patrick said, adding EPA doesn’t have “the luxury of time” when it comes to the climate law. Grants need to be distributed, which may mean EPA staff are awarding a grant that isn’t in their region.
“So what? We’ve got to get the money out the door. And so it’s going to call on us to work cooperatively in ways we haven’t seen before,” Patrick said. “My call to everyone is get ready to reach across boundaries. We can have arguments later after the money is awarded.”
Scrutiny of EPA’s climate spending could increase next year. If Republicans take the House, the Senate or both after the midterm elections, they will be eager to boost oversight of the agency, including its handling of the Inflation Reduction Act (E&E Daily, Oct. 19).
Still, EPA’s funds to help with climate change have already been in high demand. At the meeting, McCabe asked Simon to discuss what she called “the school bus tsunami.”
Under the infrastructure law, EPA has $5 billion over the next five years to provide electric school buses. The agency announced in May the program’s first round of funding at $500 million but soon found itself overwhelmed.
“We’ve been substantially oversubscribed,” Simon said at the meeting.
Asked how the agency responded to that level of interest, EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll directed E&E News to an agency announcement last month saying that awards for the clean bus program will nearly double to $965 million for fiscal 2022.
Regan closed the meeting by thanking staff and noting EPA is ready to implement the climate law, which the agency helped shape.
“When you look at the language really closely, if you know what you’re looking for, you see language that is developed or has been developed from our technical advice,” Regan said. “You all should know, if you don’t, that this opportunity didn’t just fall in our laps. First of all, we were ready for this opportunity. We’ve been ready for this opportunity.”