Republican dream of EPA makeover no easy lift

By Robin Bravender | 07/20/2016 01:27 PM EDT

The Republican Party this week unveiled its latest plan to chip away at U.S. EPA.

The Republican Party this week unveiled its latest plan to chip away at U.S. EPA.

Delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland approved a platform Monday that calls for stripping EPA of much of its power and letting states take the lead in environmental regulation. EPA would then be turned into a "bipartisan commission" with limited authority.

While the plan lacks details, former top EPA officials say the scheme would involve a massive political lift, might lead to a patchwork of environmental policies across the country and could wind up hurting industries rather than helping them.


"This is a profoundly radical proposal. It rejects 40 years of environmental history and success," said William Reilly, who led EPA during the George H.W. Bush administration.

What Reilly calls "radical," other Republicans call "modern."

The GOP platform lays out what it calls a "modern approach to environmentalism" that starts with a "dramatic change in official Washington."

Under that plan, EPA would be similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is headed by commissioners from both sides of the aisle, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It would be a dramatic change from EPA’s current structure, where one presidentially picked administrator (now Gina McCarthy) is running the show.

EPA has a staff of about 15,000 employees tasked with implementing laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other laws dealing with hazardous waste management, toxic substances and pesticides. NRC is much smaller, with about 3,500 employees.

The logistics of the overhaul could be theoretically simple, former EPA officials say, although the political realities of the venture could create insurmountable hurdles.

EPA was created by an executive order in 1970 by President Nixon, who wanted to pull various agencies’ existing environmental programs under one roof. As environmental laws were passed, like the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972, EPA was tasked with setting national pollution limits and cracking down on violators.

"EPA has a lot of responsibilities under various statutes, and someone would need to think about all of those," said Jeff Holmstead, who was EPA’s top air official during the George W. Bush administration.

"If you’re talking about legislation, the mechanics of it wouldn’t be all that difficult, but the politics might be a different story."

‘Legislative rewiring’

Scott Fulton, who was EPA’s general counsel during the Obama administration, said the "substantial amount of legislative rewiring" required for the Republicans’ plan could in theory involve a "cross-cutting statute that changes the organizational structure of the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Protection Commission, or whatever they called it."

"In practice, the problem, of course, is that each of the environmental statutes deals with a different environmental phenomenon," added Fulton, who is now president of the Environmental Law Institute. "How you deal with that nuance in a cross-cutting statute of this kind is the question. I think it would be very, very difficult."

The alternative, which "seems even more challenging," he said, is amending each environmental law on its own. "Opening up these statutes tends to become a Christmas tree experience, with everyone wanting their own ornament. Hard to contain or control," he said.

There’s certain to be broad opposition from greens and Democrats to any effort to limit federal environmental oversight. It could also be complicated to get congressional Republicans on the same page, even if they control the White House and both chambers of Congress next year.

"When you start trying to legislate in this area, it becomes a pretty complicated matter because of the different stakeholders in the Congress who really have a fair amount of leverage for what happens" with EPA, Fulton said. "There’s a large number of committees that have little slices of EPA’s jurisdiction under their review."

The specifics of the GOP’s plan aren’t clear from the one-paragraph description released this week, and experts say it raises a host of questions about the structure of a new commission, whether it would retain the capacity to crack down on polluters and what it might mean for industries.

"The EPA was established in order to provide a uniform uplifting of environmental standards across the country," Reilly said, and to "trump the temptation to forum shop" by corporations. Ultimately, he said, "industry came to like the uniform standards."

Holmstead pointed to the recent congressional overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was welcomed by industry groups. "The business community didn’t want to have the prospect of 50 different states regulating chemicals in different ways," he said.

"There’s no alternative structure that is identified that would carry out the enforcement responsibilities." He said the plan appears to be "suggesting that enforcement would not be a priority."

Fulton said it’s possible to imagine a commission that would be responsible for setting regulations, such as a national air quality standard for ozone, but that decisionmaking would be more complicated with a panel of bipartisan commissioners. And there would be questions about who’s responsible for implementing those rules.

"EPA has a lot of implementation responsibility besides just the setting of rules," he said.

Ultimately, Reilly said, he thinks the GOP plan "would have very little likelihood of passing the Congress."

If it did, he warned, "it would create ‘sacrifice states’ from the point of view of the environment," with some states having weaker regulations than others.

Efforts to hamstring EPA

This is just the latest in a long line of proposals to obliterate or overhaul EPA since the agency’s inception. Among others:

  • Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has pledged to eliminate the agency if he wins the White House (Greenwire, Oct. 19, 2015).
  • In 2014, the conservative Heartland Institute unveiled a report suggesting replacing EPA with a committee made up of state environmental agencies (Greenwire, Aug. 12, 2014).
  • Former Republican presidential contender Rick Perry said on the campaign trail in 2011 that he would eliminate EPA. He then backtracked, saying he meant to say that the Energy Department should be eliminated, but that EPA "needs to be rebuilt" (E&E Daily, Nov. 10, 2011).
  • Also on the presidential campaign trail in 2011, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) proposed replacing EPA with a more "job-friendly" operation (E&E Daily, Jan. 20, 2011).