EPA races to finish Obama rules

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are racing to churn out new regulations before the clock runs out on President Obama’s term.

White House records show there have been a flurry of meetings in recent weeks between administration officials and outside groups trying to influence the final language of EPA rules under construction.

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The activity is evidence that Obama’s push to combat global warming with regulation has entered a critical phase, with officials hammering out the details of rules that carry major implications for the environment and the economy.

“I think they’re really moving, and I think the president himself is very committed to moving, because climate change is happening all around us,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “I think they’re moving with speed, I do.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say they are concerned by the broad sweep of the EPA’s regulatory agenda, even though the agency says it is merely enacting the laws that Congress has passed.

“I recognize that EPA has to do this, but I think EPA is sometimes stretching the limit too far in how aggressive they’ve been moving,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has distanced himself from the president’s environmental and energy policies as he runs for reelection in his energy-rich state.

One of the EPA regulations — a proposal to limit pollution from existing power plants — has been the subject of at least a dozen meetings at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since early April.  

The power plants rule has attracted more attention that perhaps any other Obama administration regulation. Industry and green groups have flocked to the White House in hopes of shaping the proposal, slated to be unveiled early next month.

Meanwhile, the administration has convened meetings on agency proposals for regulations involving oil refineries, the renewable fuel standard and a final rule revising regulations for the disposal of solid waste.

Over the last six weeks, there have been at least 30 meetings at OMB centering on EPA regulations. That’s a dramatic increase from the previous three months, when the White House posted notices for just 20 meetings.

EPA officials downplayed the increase, saying the uptick is a poor indication of rulemaking activity. Meetings are initiated by outside groups, and any interested stakeholder can have a meeting while OMB is reviewing a rule, said spokeswoman Liz Purchia. The meetings are part of an “unprecedented” level of outreach to gather feedback, she said.

“We welcome this input as a standard part of the rulemaking process,” she said. “Certain rules may have more stakeholder interest, and during OMB review of these rules the number of requested meetings may temporarily increase.”

The EPA’s formal rulemaking agenda contains 134 proposed actions. 

That number, Purchia stressed, reflects the agency’s lowest total since electronic records began in 1995.

Still, lawmakers and experts from across the political spectrum see both urgency and ambition at Obama’s EPA.

Bill Kovacs, senior vice president for the Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, cited the scope and complexity of the rules under development, including the climate change measures and the agency’s push to expand its authority over smaller bodies of water.

“You’re talking about rules that are going to affect the entire country,” said Kovacs.

The forthcoming regulations for existing power plants, together with a rule proposed in January that would impose limits on emissions from new plants, serve as the centerpiece of Obama’s climate push.

Beyond air quality, EPA is also expecting to issue the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard mandate in June, and OMB is reviewing a final rule to redefine solid waste for the purposes of hazardous waste recycling rules.

Natural gas exploration is also on EPA’s radar. It finalized guidance for permitting hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations that use diesel fuel, and is considering how to limit the amount of natural gas that escapes into the atmosphere.

Observers say the movement at EPA reflects the administration’s acknowledgement that its window to enact its regulatory agenda is beginning to close. Developing and enacting a single rule is a painstaking process that often takes years.

“It’s not a coincidence that the administration is more vigorously implementing laws that Congress passed, with only two and a half years remaining in the president’s term,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.

John Podesta, the center’s former president, is now a senior advisor to Obama and is focused on helping implement the president’s climate initiative.  He is reprising a role he played as White House chief of staff late in the Clinton administration — a period that also saw significant regulatory action.

“Every administration at the end turns to the regulatory process,” the Chamber’s Kovacs said.

Some Congressional Republicans contend that EPA has run amok by basing bold actions on laws that are decades old.

“They have gone way beyond the original intent of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), also a member of the Senate Environment Committee. “They continue to try to force upon the American public things that President Obama Could not accomplish legislatively. So I think they are exceeding their authority.”

The administration’s backers point to a string of federal court rulings upholding the EPA’s powers.

“Congress is going to yell that it’s an overreach but the reality is, the president and his administration are implementing the laws that Congress passed,” Weiss said.