Trump EPA Team Lands at Agency Amid Sluggish Transition

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By Brian Dabbs

Nov. 29 — The now widely known climate change skeptic, Myron Ebell, remains the only name on the Environmental Protection Agency landing team roster. And the agency’s transition under President-elect Donald Trump is likely lagging significantly behind the 2008 turnover’s pace.

Meanwhile, Trump has provided limited-at-best clarification of his EPA priorities while backpedaling on core campaign messaging related to the environment.

That trinity has infused concern and uncertainty among staunch EPA supporters, but the agency announced internally Nov. 28 the Trump landing team officially arrived at the Washington, D.C., headquarters. The descent on the Constitution Avenue complex launches the preparation for new agency blood following Inauguration Day.

A range of former EPA officials and environment leaders told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 28, before the arrival came to light, the Trump team still has plenty of time to smoothly transition at the EPA. There is no need to sound the alarm bell, those officials, who come from both sides of the aisle, said.

In fact, the Trump team is now positioned for a possible eight-week, agency policy and personnel review and recommendation process, EPA Transition Director Shannon Kenny told EPA staff in an e-mail released to Bloomberg BNA.

“Between now and Inauguration Day, the team will be meeting with EPA leadership and preparing the incoming administration to lead the agency,” Kenny said. She also attached a primer of transition protocol.

No Pace Angst

The EPA transition pace is generally consistent with past precedent, Lynn Bergeson, a veteran toxics attorney in Washington and Hillary Clinton supporter, told Bloomberg BNA.

Dimitri Karakitsos, recent addition to Holland & Knight LLP in Washington and former senior counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, agreed with Bergeson, arguing the priority now is to ensure the right people fill the landing team roster.

“The president-elect and his team have done a lot of outreach to the Hill and industry,” Karakitsos told Bloomberg BNA. “There’s a lot going on, and everyday seems like something new. Also, it’s a matter of how you prioritize, not to say the EPA isn’t significant.”

Karakitsos, who was a principal author of the Toxic Substances Control Act reform which President Barack Obama signed into law in June, said the Trump team continues to juggle priorities such as preparing the Department of Defense. The first landing team announcement included 10 Defense names. The State and Justice department teams also have been stocked since only several days after the election victory.

Team Received Briefing Documents

Prior to the EPA Nov. 28 arrival memo, the transition team had solicited and received briefing documents, which likely included a timeline for statutorily mandated and court-ordered agency actions, Bergeson said.

The lack of public landing team names and other advisers aren’t reason for concern, those interviewed said.

“Who are the entities whispering in the transition team’s ear giving contextual grounding, that’s unclear,” Bergeson said. The transition team communications arm didn’t respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment.

Transition Underperforms 2008

Obama landing team members, which was made up of roughly a dozen people, were dispatched and fully operational at EPA headquarters by this date eight years ago, said Bob Sussman, the co-chair of the Obama transition team over the inaugural period and a senior policy adviser thereafter.

“Right about now, we were firing on all cylinders,” Sussman said, noting that current transition is far behind that schedule.

“I certainly don’t think its going to be a positive for them,” Sussman said. “First of all, with all due respect, I doubt that Myron Ebell has very extensive knowledge of the agency, in terms of how it’s organized and key staff. We had people on our team that had served at the team, and Ebell has not. He needs EPA staff and scholars and think tanks that know it well. Maybe he has those people, maybe he doesn’t.”

That year, the Bush administration provided Obama transition staffers with an exclusive office, computers and temporary EPA e-mail addresses, Sussman said. They ultimately wrapped up work before Jan. 1, he said.

Starkly Different Agenda

The Trump team is also pursuing an agenda starkly different than Obama’s, which could rationalize a slower pace, Karakitsos said.

“We’re not coming in on the environment side with a huge regulatory agenda. It’s more of what the President-elect thinks on existing rules, as opposed to the Obama Administration, which put the rules out and tried to get after them as quickly as possible,” he said.

Shadow Government

Meanwhile, the Trump transition, like most incoming Republican administrations, is likely at a “generic deficit” linked to less developed policy and regulatory advisories from nongovernmental entities in Washington, Rick Otis, a high-ranking EPA Office of Policy official under George W. Bush and lead on that administration’s transition following inauguration, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The shadow government, the think tanks and other interests groups, probably were working on the transition more diligently for Clinton,” he said. “If you’re trying to build the case that they’re behind schedule, I don’t see that, aside from the fact that Republican teams don’t have as much coming in from that shadow government.”

Alexandra Dunn, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state and territorial environmental commissioners, told Bloomberg BNA her group is preparing to send policy materials to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Ebell and internally to EPA staff.

Leadership Vacuum

Following the nomination for EPA administrator, the transition team will likely quickly develop a list of initial political personnel to bring on board, such as the chief of staff for the administrator, communications staff and special advisers. Otis said the leadership vacuum is particularly acute at EPA during presidential turnovers.

“When the political people leave at EPA, there aren’t many people left in the immediate office of the Administrator, unlike other Cabinet departments with executive secretariats,” Otis said. “There are a few career people such as a deputy chief of staff at EPA, but you kind of have to glue back the head of the beast. There’s no machine to give you the information, on, for example, the status of rulemakings—unless you ask for it.”

The president-elect’s nomination for EPA administrator continues to befuddle onlookers. Trump met Nov. 28 with Kathleen Hartnett White, the former chairman and commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Bergeson called speculation surrounding the choice a kind of “echo chamber.”

Period of Inertia Possible

That vacuum and lack of nominations may lead to a period of inertia, Sussman said.

“We may have a period of a few months where nothing is going on, regardless of whether they want new rules or a more slash-and-burn agenda,” he said. “Anything that requires policy judgment or a change of direction will have to wait until you have political appointees in charge.”

Karakitsos said Trump’s experience and affiliation with the industry community gives his team an advantage in preparing to navigate the EPA’s regulatory framework. Trump’s advisory circle includes Harold Hamm, an oil and gas mogul who founded Continental Resources Inc. and a potential pick for energy secretary.

Other observers, however, questioned the transition efficiency value tied to industry experience.

“It does not add to the granularity of the process, just the diversity of the substantive breadth of the team,” Bergeson said. “Prior transition teams have been populated with similarly situated entities.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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