Administration to Make Most of Obama's Final Months

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By Patrick Ambrosio

April 4 — Administration officials are mindful that President Barack Obama's second term in the White House is drawing to a close but said work is not yet complete on the president's environmental priorities.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department, the White House Office of Management and Budget and other agencies, during a March 31-April 1 American Bar Association conference in Austin, Texas, highlighted a number of priorities for the last eight months of the Obama administration, including continued implementation of the climate action plan, defending many of Obama's major environmental rules in court and working to close as many enforcement cases as possible.

John Cruden, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, told Bloomberg BNA that Obama has encouraged officials to remain focused on environmental issues in the final months.

“The president has talked to us about running through the tape, so that every day we’re at a job affecting the health, welfare and environment of the American public,” Cruden said during a sit-down interview. “We want to be working until the very last moment, the last day to accomplish all of our goals.”

When asked if he was considering resigning before Obama leaves the White House, Cruden said he intended to stay in his post at the Justice Department until the end of the administration.

Climate Work Not Done

One of the major goals that the administration will continue to pursue is implementation of the president's Climate Action Plan.

While the Clean Power Plan regulation to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, issued in 2015, is the centerpiece of that plan, there is still more for the administration to do before leaving office, White House officials said during a panel discussion on Obama's climate legacy.

“We have kept up a steady drumbeat on this front” Samantha Medlock, senior adviser at the OMB, said of the administration's climate change efforts. “The president is going to cross the finish line at a full sprint.”

Ali Zaidi, associate director for natural resources, energy and science at the OMB, said one major development this year will be updated fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles. The more stringent fuel economy standards, along with tighter carbon dioxide emission standards (RIN 2060-AS16; RIN 2127-AL52), are set to be issued this summer by the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Zaidi praised industry for its input on the fuel economy standards. “It's thrilling to hear industry come in and tell you you've got to be ambitious and you've got to push hard,” he said.

During an earlier panel, Brenda Mallory, general counsel of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration also intends to issue final guidance on how federal agencies should integrate climate change into reviews conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act. The CEQ in December 2014 issued draft guidance that would advise federal agencies to consider in NEPA reviews the climate impact of any action that would increase greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year .

In addition to the regulatory action, Medlock noted that while political appointees will leave at the end of Obama's presidency, career federal employees and staff that have “embedded” climate issues in their thinking and planning will remain.

Lawyers Shift to Defending Priorities

Overall, “very little” should change for the EPA over the next eight months, Avi Garbow, EPA general counsel, said during a panel discussion.

Garbow said that as the administration ends his role will be to make sure the advice of the Office of the General Counsel to the EPA does not change. While Garbow acknowledged that time is a big challenge for accomplishing environmental goals, it will be important for the agency “not to rush things.”

“Now is not the time to skip any steps and make mistakes,” he said.

For the EPA's attorneys, their work during Obama's last months in office will be focused on litigation over the administration's “large, consequential” environmental rules from the past seven years, including the Clean Power Plan.

“Much of what we are focused on now is defending those rules,” Garbow said.

Cruden described the litigation over the Clean Power Plan as the “Super Bowl of litigation” because of how many parties are involved and are being represented by good lawyers. The rule is being challenged by 27 states, as well as several utilities and industry groups. A variety of environmental and public health groups, former lawmakers and major companies like Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have filed briefs in support of the EPA (West Virginia v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 15-1363, amicus briefs filed 4/1/16; 64 DEN A-1, 4/4/16)See previous story, 04/04/16)63 ECR, 4/1/16).

Cruden said he expects to have a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before the end of the administration. Oral arguments in the litigation are scheduled for June 2, and possibly extending into June 3, before Judges Judith Rogers, Karen LeCraft Henderson and Sri Srinivasan.

“I expect to prevail. I expect that we're going to be successful,” Cruden said. “I really think in the early fall, we'll know.”

Closing Enforcemental Cases

In addition to defending EPA rules in court, Cruden said another priority is the government's environmental enforcement docket.

“We really are trying to resolve as much as possible,” Cruden said.

One of the major pending cases is the Justice Department's multibillion-dollar civil complaint against Volkswagen over the company's use of emissions devices in about 580,000 diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. Bruce Gelber, deputy assistant attorney general in the Environment and Natural Resources Division, said during a panel discussion that “getting close” to resolving the Volkswagen case is a top priority for this year.

Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, agreed that a main priority is to focus on the highest profile remaining cases to get those “wrapped up or as close as possible” before the end of the administration. Giles also cited the integration of the Next Generation Compliance initiative into the agency's enforcement work as a priority for her remaining time in office.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Ambrosio in Austin, Texas, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at