When EPA Administrator Michael Regan fired every member of two science advisory panels in March, he was trying to send an unequivocal message: It's a new day for scientific integrity.
It was a hardball maneuver by EPA's new chief, who came to the job with a national reputation for his work forging consensus as a regulator in North Carolina. He had just taken over a federal agency where career scientists and civil servants felt diminished and attacked under the Trump administration.
In remarks to EPA employees after he was sworn in last month, Regan promised to "restore the role of science and transparency" at the agency. From where he sat, that could only begin with a clean slate of independent science advisers.
But what was heralded by Regan's champions and science boosters as a bold reset for EPA has unsettled Republicans since he won bipartisan Senate confirmation to the post.
Near the end of President Biden's first 100 days, Regan is now navigating far rougher political terrain. Science and EPA are at center stage as Biden pursues a sweeping policy agenda, aimed at righting the wrongs of environmental injustices and transitioning the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels.
If Biden's proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan passes Congress this year, EPA would be a hub for moving tens of billions of dollars to replace lead pipes, electrify school buses and clean up toxic sites. The president has set a goal of achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. On Capitol Hill, with budget season in full bloom, Regan is pressing for a 21% budget increase to rebuild the agency.
"Those resources that we're looking for in the American Jobs Plan will complement the regulatory authority and the statutory authority that we have to reduce these emissions, which are informed by science and set the pace for how we address this climate emergency," Regan said today in an interview with E&E News. "I would say that this agency is central to the president's very aggressive agenda, and we're very proud to serve in that role."
As Biden prepares for perhaps his toughest climb — the next 100 days of negotiations with Congress over the jobs and infrastructure package — Regan's early decision to dismiss his predecessor's science advisers is helping Republicans find their grip. GOP members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) have criticized the "purge" in letters to Regan and questioned his commitment to acting in a bipartisan way.
Regan's first significant decision as administrator also attracted a broader concern: Is this the start of a partisan tit for tat, a scorched-earth policy that after every presidential election cycle could potentially undermine the agency's core mission to evaluate science and regulate?
"The biggest loss here, promulgated by both administrations, but especially by this recent decision, is public confidence in the impartiality of science," said Robert Mace, a Texas State University professor who served on EPA's Science Advisory Board during both the Trump and Obama administrations.
"With greater political polarization, the message appears to be that each administration gets its own science," Mace said. "That is not a good message."
Regan said that after consulting with career staff, he determined the SAB and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee "needed a fresh start" to restore integrity in the nomination process. He added the reset was directed not at individuals who served and they'll be given the chance to reapply.
"This was not politically motivated at all," Regan said. "This is a great example of how this administration will listen to the experts here at EPA and govern ourselves accordingly."
Supporters of Regan's move to remake the advisory boards say it was absolutely needed. The Trump EPA banned highly qualified scientists who had received agency grants from serving on the panels, which are a big part of the agency's process of evaluating science and regulating pollutants. The Government Accountability Office found EPA under former Administrator Scott Pruitt circumvented the customary process for appointing members to those boards, opening the door to scientists affiliated with regulated industries.
Chris Zarba, former EPA staff director for the Science Advisory Board, said Regan's decision shows he's "willing to do whatever is necessary" to return scientific integrity to the agency as he takes on the harder regulatory challenges.
"If that means breaking eggs, he will do it. That's the only way to do it," Zarba said in an interview.
"It communicates to staff that science will have a place at the table," Zarba also said about the decision, "and that certainly helps morale."
Seizing the moment
The Biden administration is pushing for more funding and resources for EPA, an agency that's seen its workforce shrink significantly in recent years.
In meetings on Capitol Hill, Regan has championed the White House's vision of an environmental policy closely bound to an economic expansion plan.
"The president has seized this moment to reimagine a new American economy that leads the world in advancing clean energy," Regan said at a congressional hearing last week. "[It] modernizes our infrastructure while enabling it to withstand impacts from climate change and rights the historic wrongs of past environmental injustices that have held back generations of Black, Latinx and indigenous and low-income communities."
EPA would receive $11.2 billion under the president's initial budget proposal for fiscal 2022, a more than 21% increase from the agency's current funding of $9.2 billion. That includes over $110 million to restore EPA's "critical staff capacity" and rebuild its programs to protect air, land and water.
In addition, EPA has already received $100 million from Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Half of that is for grants to study and address public health disparities tied to exposure to dirty air and water. The other half will be for Clean Air Act grants to monitor air pollution.
The administration has also mounted a COVID-19 vaccine push across the country, administering tens of millions of shots. Regan said he is fully vaccinated with "minimal" side effects. "I took my spot and I took my shot," he said.
Biden's proposed American Jobs Plan, which is expected to reach Capitol Hill during the summer or fall, aims to replace water pipes and service lines made with lead, a harmful toxin, especially for children. EPA estimates that 6 million to 10 million U.S. homes have such pipes. Under the plan, the agency would receive $45 billion for its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and water infrastructure grants to help replace those pipes.
EPA would also be part of Biden's electric vehicles push. As part of the infrastructure plan, a new Clean Buses for Kids program run by the agency would help electrify 20% of school buses across the country. The plan also includes money for other top EPA priorities, like $10 billion to monitor and clean up per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the "forever chemicals" that have polluted drinking water sources. In addition, the plan has $5 billion to redevelop brownfields and Superfund toxic waste sites.
EPA was left depleted after the Trump administration. Many employees felt unable to do their jobs or, as rule after rule was rolled back, left in frustration, taking their institutional knowledge with them. In turn, Regan has said he wants to reestablish morale and fill now empty positions at the agency.
"We start by restoring what we lost," Regan said. "That's why I've been so focused on workforce and morale because we want to stop that bleeding. We want to have an inviting environment where our employees feel empowered to do the jobs they were hired to do."
Biden's budget proposal says EPA lost nearly 1,000 employees over the past four years. The agency has 14,356 employees on board now, which can change every pay period, according to an EPA spokesperson.
Regan said he was "dismayed" by how EPA staff were treated and how science was applied to decision-making when he was outside the agency.
"What's been surprising to me has been the resiliency of this staff," Regan said in the interview, adding EPA has "world-renowned staff" at "the top of their game" who have bounced back quickly.
'A clean slate'
Regan has begun to reorient EPA during his first days in charge.
He has called on EPA staff to incorporate equity and environmental justice in every function of the agency, from enforcement and regulations to grants and permitting. In an email to employees, Regan said "we have much work to do" as communities of color or low-income suffer "disproportionately" from pollution.
Regan told E&E News that memo was designed to provide certainty to employees.
"We're giving them the green light, that they should do the best as it pertains to not only protecting the environment but looking at the people that are on the other side of those fencelines and how our policies and regulations impact people," Regan said.
Biden's budget proposal would also fund at $936 million a new initiative named Accelerating Environmental and Economic Justice. It would be housed at EPA and designed to create union jobs as well as help communities of color and low-income areas overburdened by pollution.
Regan will have some room to maneuver at the agency, with federal courts striking down a variety of Trump EPA regulations that pulled back environmental protections. The "secret science" rule that restricts EPA from using nonpublic scientific research to regulate; greenhouse gas emissions limits for landfills and energy facilities; and ozone standards have been jettisoned by the courts.
In his confirmation hearing, Regan noted the court ruling that tossed the Affordable Clean Energy rule — Trump's replacement for the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation of electricity sector carbon emissions — as giving EPA "a clean slate" on how to move forward on climate change.
Since going to EPA, Regan brought back online EPA's webpage on climate, which had been banished in the Trump years. He has also said the agency will move with "a sense of urgency" on the crisis.
The agency is preparing tougher tailpipe emissions limits, which are on track to be proposed by July. And yesterday, EPA signaled it would return authority to California to set its own stricter tailpipe emissions standards for light-duty cars and trucks, reversing a Trump administration decision to revoke the state's Clean Air Act waiver that can help cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"The tailpipe emissions need to be aggressive. The science informs that level of aggression," Regan said, adding the agency has been in talks with the auto industry and unions. "We're going to meet the moment, and we're going to do it in a way where we protect the environment and create good-paying jobs."
Regan and EPA have managed to set the table for Biden's environmental agenda in the president's first 100 days. But like every other agency, EPA has requirements for public notice and comments that could slow the process of shifting into regulatory overdrive.
Once rules are in place, litigation is expected to soon follow.
Pressure to deliver is intense. Green groups, progressive activists and Democratic lawmakers, frustrated by the prior administration, want to see the return of an agency unafraid to defend the environment.
Regan's willingness to clear the decks at the science boards sent a signal to former officials who tried to lay the groundwork for restoring confidence at the agency. Zarba, the former Science Advisory Board staffer, is a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA officials that had pushed for a reset of the science boards in a report last August.
Still, others who acknowledge that Regan's predecessors at EPA, Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, meddled with the agency's advisory committees, remain concerned about Regan's reset.
"In a nutshell, I don't think two wrongs make a right," Michael Honeycutt, the former chairman of the Science Advisory Board who stepped down last year, told E&E News. "My personal opinion is that Administrators Pruitt and Wheeler were wrong to exclude scientists who receive EPA funding from serving on the board, but that Administrator Regan was also wrong to fire the board."
"I'll note that the very same members who were just fired from the SAB tackled some very controversial topics over the past three years," Honeycutt said, "yet steered clear of policy issues and gave solid scientific advice."
Zarba, who was tasked with letting go of science advisers before he retired from EPA in 2018 after 38 years, said Regan's move was essential. "It's back to where it used to be," Zarba said. "It illustrates the importance of having sound science."
Still, the project isn't complete yet. Regan hasn't appointed new members to the SAB.
Mace, one of the board's members fired by Regan, is confident the new board and EPA staff will "continue to serve with dignity and the highest standards."
"In the end, science is a power greater than politics," Mace said.
Reporter Sean Reilly contributed.