Dr Stan Meiburg, Director of the Sustainability Graduate Programs at Wake Forest University, was the guest speaker for the Hercules Exposome Research Center at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. On March 16, 2021, Meiburg shared his insights into the work awaiting the new EPA administration during the HERCULES Seminar: “EPA and Public Health in the New Administration”
The election and inauguration of President Biden has already had a profound effect on the culture of Environmental Protection Agency and the potential role of the agency in promoting public health. By all accounts, the EPA staff is really excited about the new leadership coming in and are looking forward to a chance to restore the basic morale and integrity within the agency. One distinction in the 2021 transition is that there were 43 people who were able to move directly to senior political positions within the EPA as they did not require Senate confirmation. When Michael Regan arrived as Administrator of the EPA, he had the advantage of a team that was already hard at work in reshaping the agency. Staff that stayed through the previous administration, enduring some pretty tough times, deserve an immense amount of credit. The new team deeply appreciated that and came in with the attitude that we are back and we want to work and benefit from the expertise that the EPA staff have.
President Biden asked Gina McCarthy to work in the White House as the Director of newly formed White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. A job which involves coordinating all of the different agencies of the government to focus on the climate challenge. As a former EPA Administrator, Gina fully understands the needs of the new Administrator. Having an ally in the White House with an office so near the the Oval Office is an advantage for Regan that previous Administrators have not had. This is a great help in Regan’s climate change responsibilities.
This is a strong team complimented by John Kerry. Kerry was sworn in on January 20, 2021 as the nation’s first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and is the first Principal on the National Security Council whose sole focus is climate change. The experience of this leadership team, who know their way around government and are suited by intellect and temperament, will play a strong role in developing American policy in the climate arena and in other areas of environmental protection. They are respected leaders and are a remarkable change from the previous administration.
The Biden Administration has gathered a team of people who will engage difficult issues, have debates, be transparent, follow the law, and try to reframe the way in which the EPA is positioned. The overarching theme at the agency is to restore the traditional EPA values of following science, following the law, and being transparent. All of these values were set for the EPA from the very beginning in 1970 by Bill Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator, and had been neglected in Trump Administration.
The Biden Administration did not wait on the confirmation of a new group of Presidentially Appointed and Senate Confirmed Appointees to get started on policy work. On Inauguration Day, President Biden issued a nine page Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. This order was heavy on climate-related actions. It called for agencies to “immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis”, ordered the immediate review of a host of agency regulations, revoked a whole string of Trump-era Executive Orders, revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, set up a group to revise the social cost of carbon, restored National Monuments diminished by the Trump Administration, and halted oil and gas activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The overarching theme at the agency is to restore the traditional EPA values of following science, following the law, and being transparent. All of these values were set for the EPA from the very beginning in 1970 by Bill Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator
The new administration wasted no time in implementing initiatives and policy changes. On the afternoon of January 20, 2021, the Biden Administration published a non-inclusive list of 104 Actions for Review by Federal Agencies. It is a fact sheet list of regulations to be reviewed across the Federal government. The EPA had 48 such actions — more than any other agency. There were 19, on the Clean Air Act alone. It provides a roadmap of EPA objectives for the next year. On January 27th, the President issued a 21 page Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. This order embodied President Biden’s “all of government” approach for addressing climate change and contained sweeping directives for virtually every foreign policy and domestic agency in the Federal government. Overseeing these orders will be the job of John Kerry and Gina McCarthy.
In August 2020, the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) released a report entitled Resetting the Course of the EPA as an effort to frame a post-election agenda to "reset" the direction of EPA, and contains references to a whole suite of reforms. It is not an advocacy piece, but was aimed at bringing experienced talent to bear on critical issues facing EPA. It is focused and highly readable, and while it's not a "blueprint" it was used by the transition team. The EPN is a group of over 500 former EPA employees, explicitly nonpartisan, that formed after the 2016 election in response to attacks on EPA that went outside the long-established norms of Presidents of both parties.
The official policies of EPA have done a 180 degree turnaround during the Biden Administration. However, it will take time to see these fully embodied in rules, which will then in turn be challenged in court. There is now potential for progress at EPA that we haven’t seen in many years, but it’s not going to be simple. Congress is still divided, and large scale statutory change seems unlikely. The agency has a solid core of career staff, but its culture has to be rebuilt — in resources and leadership.
The video of the HERCULES Seminar: “EPA and Public Health in the New Administration” was originally published on March 16, 2021. The virtual event was hosted by the Hercules Exposome Research Center at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.