While critics and supporters alike pore over President Trump's proposed federal budget to pinpoint programs that will suffer and savings that will benefit taxpayers, President Trump's vision of the federal budget includes welcome reform at the Environmental Protection Agency. It would slash appropriations for the EPA's climate programs; instead of global warming, the budget "reorients EPA's air program to protect the air we breathe." From this statement, it is safe to infer that President Trump intends to refocus the agency on doing its job as intended by the Congress.
Over the last decade, climate change has become the EPA's number one priority. Consider the ascendancy of global warming in the agency's multi-year strategic plans for air quality, which are required by law. In the EPA's 2001 — 2005 Strategic Plan, "Goal 1" is "Clean Air," while climate change mitigation was subsumed in "Goal 6: Reduction of Global and Cross-Border Environmental Risks." However, in the 2006-2010 plan, climate change mitigation is incorporated into a new "Goal 1," which is titled "Clean Air and Global Climate Change." And in the 2011-2015 plan, "Goal 1" is changed again to "Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality" — that is, global warming is listed before improving air quality.
A look back shows that the EPA's shift in focus to climate change accelerated during the Obama administration. In 2014, for example, then-EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters that "all hands on deck" at the agency were working on President Barack Obama's climate action plan.
There are three major problems with the EPA's climate tunnel vision over the past few years.
First, the EPA's climate regulations will not have an impact on the climate, and the agency concedes this. To wit, the Clean Power Plan, which is the crown jewel of the agency's climate rules, would prevent sea level rise equivalent to the width of three sheets of paper.
Second, the EPA's increasing pre-occupation with the climate does not gibe with polling data demonstrating that American voters give low priority to climate change, even among environmental issues.
Third, and most important, the EPA's turn to climate policy conflicts with the agency's responsibilities as determined by Congress. The statutes that empower the EPA are rife with deadlines that reflect the nuts and bolts of environmental protection. The problem is that the agency is ignoring these statutory duties in order to pursue its narrow climate agenda.
For example, in a recent study I reviewed the EPA's performance meeting Clean Air Act deadlines over the last eight years. Out of more than 1,100 deadlines, the agency missed 84 percent and missed them by an average of 4.3 years. For technology-forcing regulations that must be reviewed every eight years to reflect the latest science and technology, the agency was late on 93 percent of its deadlines, by an average of 7.8 years. In reviewing state implementation plans, which must occur within 18 months, the agency was late on 78 percent of its deadlines by an average of 1.9 years.
By neglecting its statutory responsibilities so it can freelance on climate change, the EPA has undermined the Clean Air Act design.
The Trump administration's newly proposed budget seeks to right the ship. A return to a sensible EPA that prioritizes clean air and water within its proper authority is a positive step for the country, and seems to be exactly what President Trump is prioritizing.
To be sure, it's early in the process. The full budget details will not be released until May, so we all will have to wait to evaluate the details of proposed changes at the EPA. We'll then look to Congress to have its say and work on sensible reforms. However, on first review, the 2018 budget outline is a promising start.
William Yeatman is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute specializing in environmental policy, energy markets and administrative law.
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