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By Brian Dabbs
Career staff at the Environmental Protection Agency likely won’t be the bulwark against large-scale regulatory repeal that environmental activists would prefer.
The nearly 15,000 non-political employees do, however, play fundamental roles in the EPA rulemaking process, and a true regulatory overhaul would rely on their legwork, former employees told Bloomberg BNA.
Many EPA staff members and activists fear that President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will roll back eight years of aggressive regulatory action under President Barack Obama.
Trump continues to blast the Obama administration’s environmental track record, arguing that fossil fuel regulations are hampering American competitiveness.
Meanwhile, the nominee for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is involved in ongoing litigation over the Clean Power Plan, a high-profile rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants; a measure to clarify Clean Water Act jurisdiction; and the agency’s methane limits for the oil and natural gas industry. Trump has vowed to scale back or repeal each of those regulations.
Still, relationships among career staff and political appointees prove critical in advancing an agenda, former employees say.
Only a sliver of EPA staff, in any given administration, are political appointees. Those officials include the assistant administrator and the inner brain trust, which is comprised of a deputy administrator and at least one special assistant.
Those appointed to lead top-tier headquarters offices, such as the Office of Air and Radiation and the Office of Water, will also bring on board several additional political appointees, and the agency will have to fill the 10 regional offices with a politically appointed vanguard. Only the highest-ranking political appointees need Senate confirmation.
That leaves the agency with roughly several dozen appointees in total, a nominal percentage of the agency-wide staff.
“The political people can be pretty much at the will and mercy of career staff in terms of getting out a product,” Rick Otis, a high-ranking official in the EPA’s Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation under George W. Bush. “Unless you have a senior political person that is particularly knowledgeable and interested in the day-to-day workings of the agency—some of which can appear quite mundane but is actually quite important—the career staff will continue to go about their day-to-day work as they typically do.”
The second Bush Administration appointed only 185 EPA employees over an eight-year period, at a time when the agency had a more than 10 percent larger staff than current levels permit, Otis said.
The EPA political leadership is nearly always soliciting career staff work on actual proposals and background analysis, Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of the EPA Office of Regulatory Enforcement under former presidents Bush and Bill Clinton, told Bloomberg BNA.
Sometimes, however, political appointees will deviate from that protocol, Schaeffer said.
“Civil service employees will draft rulemaking unless an appointee just plugs in a proposal from an industry staffer. Sometimes you see that redlining from industry proposals,” he said. “That tends to make serious career staff mad because that just makes you cannon fodder. Everybody sues EPA all the time, and the decisions that need to be made are damn hard.”
Schaeffer resigned from the agency in 2002 over leadership’s unwillingness to enforce the Clean Air Act and his opposition to changes in the pipeline to overhaul the statute.
Yet the political staff is shackled with careerist participation, and generally relationships are constructive, said Winston Porter, president of Environmental Strategies in Savannah, Ga., and the former head of the EPA’s waste office.
“The new people coming in can’t affect a whole lot initially. They can’t move career staff around much and can’t fire them easily,” Porter told Bloomberg BNA. “And if a [political appointee] is not doing what he or she should be doing, staff will take over. They’re not going to sit on their hands.”
Former EPA employees and environmental experts have previously told Bloomberg BNA a particularly acrimonious atmosphere at EPA in the incoming administration may spur leaks and behavior aimed at gumming up the regulatory works.
Jim Aidala, a former EPA toxics chief and now a consultant with Bergeson & Campbell P.C., suggested those dissent tactics may in fact be in the pipeline.
“If the administration announces policies that many staff disagree with, does that mean they’ll be less creative in the suggestions they’re sending forward? Obviously, there will sometimes be people who want to hinder the advancement of the agenda,” Aidala told Bloomberg BNA.
Otis said political staff will be forced to diagnose those kinds of tactics, adding that appointees will have to ensure that career staff, as well as political staff and White House employees, are fully “fleshing out” all policy options.
Regardless of staff cohesion, rolling back regulations is a heavy lift. The new administration will have to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act to publicize and seek feedback on repeal, which includes significant, albeit, truncated timelines.
“Assuming there’s no super onerous hostility at the agency, it still takes a long time to go through the processes,” Aidala said. “The forms supporting the revolution have to be filled out and triplicated.”
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