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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

2011 at the EPA

Air Date: Week of

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (EPA)

December marks the end of a rough year for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—from Republicans blocking multiple proposed rules to President Obama over-ruling new standards for smog. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Politico reporter Erica Martinson to recap EPA’s year.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. This has been a year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could’ve used some protecting itself. Republicans cheered when President Obama overruled the EPA’s proposed tough new standards for smog last fall.

The president, citing “regulatory burdens” and the cost to the economy, sent the regs back to the EPA for more study. But his decision set environmental groups seething. They cited studies that reducing smog would save tens of billions of dollars in health care costs and prevent 12 thousand premature deaths.

Ire was also directed at the EPA when it raised environmental concerns about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It’s designed to carry tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. President Obama punted again, ordering the EPA to review the project and come up with an answer by 2013.

All in all it’s been a busy, contentious year for the EPA. Erica Martinson covers the agency for the news organization Politico.

MARTINSON: EPA was big business this year; big focus on fuel economy for cars this year, and some interaction between EPA and Department of Transportation and the auto industry.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, that fuel economy story didn’t get a lot of play. Basically the Obama Administration was raising the standard to, what 54 and a half miles per gallon by 2020, yeah?

MARTINSON: Yeah, they’ve done a lot to encourage some trucks that have better fuel economy - that’s something quite new. But, I think that it seemed to sort of slide by in the national eye.

GELLERMAN: What other stories stood out?

MARTINSON: Well, fracking has been pretty big this year. There’s a lot of fracking stories, it’s really not just one. But, the Marcellus Shale, it sort of changes the game for natural gas in America, which changes the game a lot for EPA, in the way they decide to do certain air emissions rules. The price of natural gas has gone down so dramatically that it opens it up for a lot more options for regulating utilities and power plants.

GELLERMAN: But, they haven’t made standards, they haven’t enforced things in terms of fracking, have they?

MARTINSON: Well, they’re doing a lot of research. (Laughs). EPA is also working on some rules that would regulate the disposal of fracking fluid - all the sorts of stuff that gets pulled back and there’s concern about it going to waste water treatment plants or ending up in local streams.

GELLERMAN: A lot of decisions like this were kind of like non-decisions in a sense. I’m thinking about things like the Keystone pipeline decision.

EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

MARTINSON: Yes. That was another big environmental story this year. EPA was one of the key critics of the pipeline decision - they never turned in their final environmental impact statement, the White House pulled back that decision before it happened as well.

GELLERMAN: Basically, they punted and said, ‘well, we’re going to need more information.’

MARTINSON: Yes. ‘We’ll talk about it after the election.’

GELLERMAN: You know, Erica, the EPA has really been a lightning rod for the administration, maybe a punching bag for the Republicans might be a better metaphor.

MARTINSON: It sure has. That’s been a huge focus of the House GOP this year. Not as much in the Senate. Most of the House jobs bills are largely tied to the EPA, either rolling back various EPA regulations, or just largely cutting back their ability to regulate at all.

GELLERMAN: Well the smog ruling really was, I think the big one because that’s the one where President Obama basically said, ‘No, it’s jobs - it’s the economy - not science, that’s going to determine how we enforce this regulation.’

MARTINSON: Uh huh. You know, I expect that we’ll see a lot more of this ‘jobs vs. environment’ coming up in the next year.

GELLERMAN: The President’s taken a lot of heat from his base because of some of the decisions that he’s overruled at the EPA.

MARTINSON: Yeah, the ozone decisions have been pretty tough for him. I think that one might argue that his turnaround on Keystone could be tied into getting some of that base back. And, I think that they’re pretty primed to come out with mercury rules for power plants that they’re probably hoping will shore up that base a little more and bring back the environmentalists into the fold for the Obama camp.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it seems like there is going to be a big announcement by the EPA about mercury.

MARTINSON: Yes, EPA is about to announce their rule for mercury air emissions at utilities and power plants. It’s one of the bigger rules they’ve ever done. It’s going to cover a lot of coal-fired power plants, which means all the older coal-fired power plants that are 30, 40, 50 years old that haven’t been as tightly regulated in the past, at lot of them will shut down. So, that’s caused quite a bit of drama here on the hill, also caused quite a big fight over how it’s going to affect electricity reliability.

GELLERMAN: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has had a very tough, and I think frustrating year. I think that a lot of people on the hill would just as soon put a lump of coal in her stocking.

MARTINSON: (Laughs) That’s true, she’s had a difficult go of it, both inside the Administration and, also you know, on the hill there is kind of nothing she can do correct. You know, that’s nothing new to EPA, there’s almost nothing they can do that they don't get sued over.

GELLERMAN: Has Lisa Jackson expressed frustration?

MARTINSON: Well, she’s a little more balanced in her public conversation. She’s certainly frustrated I think with the level of discussion on EPA as a job-killing agency. She’s fought back in recent months - going on a bit of a media tour – but she’s lost a few battles in her own Administration. She’s had a pretty difficult year. And, it was just announced this week actually that one of her closest personal advisors Seth Oster announced he’s heading off to the private sector. So I wouldn’t wonder if that’s not a sign of things to come.

GELLERMAN: Well, what’s the fate of the EPA budget look like?

MARTINSON: Well, they’re up against some cuts. I think the their latest numbers I saw were they’re going to lose about 300 million in the budget that may or may not be passed very soon here. And, they like everyone else are up for a lot of automatic spending cuts come 2013, since the super-committee failed to achieve their goals.

It’s a little unclear as of yet how much EPA is going to lose. But there can be a fairly convoluted process that can allow Congress to aim at specific agencies, particularly when there’s not a budget, so the EPA could be up for quite a bit more trouble.

GELLERMAN: Erica Martinson is an energy reporter. She covers the EPA for Politico. Erica, thank you so much.

MARTINSON: Thank you.



Visit Politico’s website


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