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EPA Can Be Tamed

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EPA Can Be Tamed

December 13, 2016

President-elect Trump’s selection of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be the next EPA Administrator has the left in a tizzy and the right engaging in excessive exuberance. In all likelihood, he will not be as bad as the left fears or the dragon slayer that the right is expecting.

EPA is a bureaucracy of about 15,000 employees, most of who are there because they are environmentalists. Bureaucrats routinely get criticized for being bureaucratic, which means they can excel in following rules and being able to grind progress to a halt when that suits their agenda. As career employees, we were here before the political appointees and we will be here after they leave, they are wont to admit in private.

The vast majority of federal employees are hardworking and capable, but they are not value-free, and they know how to pursue their agendas. As public choice economics makes clear, government officials respond to pressures and incentives like everyone else and attempt to advance their own self-interest.

The challenge for Pruitt is how to roll back the excesses of the Obama era without causing the EPA bureaucracy to rebel in ways that will thwart the President’s agenda. That is not an easy task, but it also is not an impossible one. Pruitt’s first action should be to appoint deputy and assistant administrators who are eminently qualified, not seen as ideologues but who support a reform agenda.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, all appointees need to take the time to learn how the agency’s culture, how it actually operates, and who the key influentials are in each of the offices under the assistant administrators. Third, regional administrators need to be appointed who will support the administrator’s agenda. Finally, successful executives will focus on a small number of priorities and delegate other issues to their deputies. Pruitt could easily become overwhelmed unless he identifies a small number of issues that have the highest value to the President and focuses on their accomplishment.

Undoing misguided Obama regulations will be difficult and time-consuming. The administrator needs to decide which ones he should attempt to reverse. Since the courts, and then perhaps Congress, will decide the fate of the Clean Power Plan rule, other issues should have the highest priority for change. Reversing the rule, though clearly justified, will ultimately end up in court.

EPA has a number of tools it can use to modify and alter the direction of existing regulations-- technical guidance, enforcement discretion, revising its interpretation of authority under the Clean Air Act, revising methodologies for establishing guidelines, and using the mid-term CAFE evaluation to modify out year standards. Learning how to bring these tools effectively to bear will pay large dividends.

Beyond targeting specific regulations, the EPA leadership should establish new standards and criteria to ensure that the agency relies on the best available science, data, and analyses. EPA should increase transparency to provide a rock solid foundation for all of its actions. That would also help to garner support from the bureaucracy.

The tremendous progress in environmental improvement over the last several decades leads to two obvious conclusions. First, the cost of pursuing additional gains gets ever more expensive. Second, states should have greater flexibility in determining how to achieve regulatory objectives most cost-effectively. EPA’s mission should be changed to move away from the current command-and-control approach to one of collaboration, to assist states in identifying and addressing their specific pollution problems. The agency should give a higher priority to providing technical information, analyses, and guidance.

Like most federal agencies, EPA has continued to expand its regulatory reach even though the character of environmental problems has changed. The new administrator should initiate a top-to-bottom review of all activities and eliminate those that are no longer relevant so that resources can be better focused on real environmental problems that demand a federal solution. Taming and changing EPA is a multi-year challenge that will require patience and farsightedness.

William O'Keefe is the President of Solutions Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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