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Update: On April 2, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote a letter to members of Congress, “I am writing to clarify the misconceptions and misreporting regarding the Temporary Policy,” he wrote. “Let me assure you that, contrary to allegations you may have read, EPA continues to enforce the environmental laws and protect human health and the environment nationwide.” The EPA also announced Thursday that it will extend the comment period for a controversial rule to limit the use of scientific studies in agency rulemaking that don’t make their underlying data public. The comment period was to close on April 17. It will now close on May 18.

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Industry is struggling during the coronavirus crisis and one way the Trump administration has responded is by suspending enforcement of some environmental regulations. The EPA made the announcement on Thursday.

Companies are usually required to report when they discharge certain levels of pollution into the air or water. But EPA is now telling them to monitor themselves for an undetermined period of time during the outbreak.

For our podcast, Trump on Earth, our guest is Rachel Frazin, energy and environment reporter for The Hill.

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Julie Grant: You’ve written about the request by the American Petroleum Institute to the Trump administration to ease certain regulations. And now we’re hearing the EPA is telling companies– not just those in the oil and gas business–that it will not, “seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations.” Can you tell us more? 

Rachel Frazin: The EPA yesterday afternoon announced that it doesn’t plan to seek penalties for violations of compliance, monitoring, some kinds of testing, sampling and other requirements that it has for companies under its jurisdiction. And that follows that request, as you mentioned, from the American Petroleum Institute, saying we were short-staffed because all of our workers are at home, social distancing so we need more time to do these requirements or sometimes we can’t meet them.

So now, the EPA is basically saying that it won’t penalize companies, with a few exceptions, that are in violation. And a lot of environmentalists see this as very broad. And they say that it basically gives a lot of companies a license to not follow the law.

Grant: The headline itself is kind of jarring when you see the EPA is relaxing environmental regulations. Do we know any more about what they’re specifically talking about? 

Frazin: So companies are required by law to monitor certain things like their levels of leaks or how well they follow certain regulations. And now they don’t. The EPA is pretty much saying if we agree with you that your ability to do that monitoring was hampered by coronavirus, we’re not going to punish you. There are some exceptions. One is Superfund, which is cleanup at hazardous waste sites and another is water service lines and also anything that is a criminal violation they are still going to pursue. So this just applies to civil violations.

Grant: Is this what the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry was asking for? 

Frazin: They had a whole list of things that they wanted relaxed. The EPA’s memo was not very specific. It didn’t get into which kinds of monitoring. API had specifically asked for certain things like deferrals and flexibility on monitoring of sampling and analysis for drinking water permits or delays on certain pollution monitoring. And a lot of those things are going to be covered by this EPA regulation if API member companies can show to the EPA’s satisfaction that they were affected by coronavirus.

Grant: But I think as you said already, this doesn’t only apply to the oil and gas industry. This applies to industry as a whole throughout the country. 

Frazin: Yes, exactly. That’s the chemical industry as well, for example, all kinds of industries. Anybody that the EPA regulates, pretty much.

Grant: I’ve seen some quotes from former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and other leaders at the EPA. What are they saying about this memo issued by the current EPA? 

Frazin: They are not pleased with it.  One official said that it was an abdication of the EPA duty to make sure that we are kept safe. Others are saying it’s just too broad. They can be understanding about certain environmental things but this is just way too sweeping, way too broad, way too vague about what it will and won’t monitor.

Grant: And what is the concern there? Is it pollution in communities? Is it public health? 

Frazin: All of the above. A lot of people see this as just instituting an honor system here, whereas companies are now sort of expected to monitor themselves, make sure that they’re keeping in compliance and they won’t see penalties. And now that there are no penalties, a lot of folks are concerned that these companies won’t have any incentive not to pollute or not to harm public health.

Grant: Now, you did do some reporting around when the American Petroleum Institute wrote this 10-page letter to President Trump asking for a relaxation of some of the rules they’ve been required to adhere to. What were they asking for? 

Frazin: So the API wrote to both President Trump and the EPA, asking that they waive what they’re calling nonessential compliance obligations. And that includes things like record-keeping and other non-safety requirements. They weren’t asking for safety requirements to be waived, but they were asking for all kinds of other things. Their letter to the EPA got into more specifics, including monitoring for greenhouse gases and leaks.

Then in their letter to the White House, they also mentioned other departments where they would like to see relaxations, not just from the EPA. It’s not clear at this point whether they’ve also written to these departments specifically. But they said that they would like to see a reduction in regulations from agencies, including the Interior Department, the Transportation Department. I think Homeland Security as well. And so that’s not just the EPA that they want to see these relaxations from either. And it’s not clear whether these departments will meet their request.

Grant: And what was the justification from the API in asking for this relaxation on rules and other things from a variety of agencies in the federal government? 

Frazin: What they’re saying is ‘look, we’ve been hit really hard by the coronavirus; a lot of our workers, are staying home. We’re asking them to social-distance. And so because of that, our members are short of manpower to do these inspections that are required by law.’

Grant: I’ve seen some things in the news that are saying the EPA has just abdicated its authority. It’s just given up its authority over these businesses and in some cases handed it to the states or to the businesses themselves.

Frazin: Exactly. It’s up to the businesses themselves to do this monitoring, whereas they used to have to turn in records to the EPA. And so if you monitor yourself it might not be as stringent. You might say you’re doing a great job. Same way, you know, in school if a kid gets to grade his own test, he might give himself an A. So that seems to be the concern here for people is that these companies might not monitor themselves as strictly if they don’t have to do it or if there are no penalties for not doing it.

Grant: Now, if there were some kind of large emergency, say there’s a big oil spill or some kind of an explosion. Is EPA still in control there? 

Frazin: Yes, the EPA still has authority, it’s just temporarily telling companies to monitor themselves. A bigger spill like that wouldn’t necessarily fall under this monitoring compliance.

Grant: You’ve written quite a bit about the oil and gas industry. One thing President Trump has been pushing for was the purchase of millions of barrels of oil. What is he asking for and what has been the administration thought on why they would do that? 

Frazin: So President Trump has said that he wants to fill up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is basically an emergency supply of oil for the U.S. He said this was based on the price of oil. And this comes as oil prices are sinking, which is really hurting the industry. And so if the government does buy all this up, it creates more demand.

It will help these companies that are really struggling buy these lower prices because it will send the price up. The other thing that they’re saying is that it will help taxpayers because they’ll be buying oil at lower prices than they normally would, so they’ll be able to get this oil for storage cheaper.

Grant:  I think a lot of people might not be familiar with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. What what is that? 

Frazin: It’s just basically an emergency supply of oil, millions of barrels, just sort of sitting around so if there ever was an oil shortage, the US could go to the supply and use it to continue to power the country. However, before the prices crashed, the government was actually selling off some of that oil. They felt like they had too much or they went to sell it to bring in revenue. They’ve since suspended that sale and are now saying they want to fill it up.

Grant: This is being characterized by critics like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer as a bailout for big oil. Why are they calling it that? 

Frazin: Well, the oil industry would benefit from it. They would get a big boost because prices would go up because demand would increase. This would be the government essentially giving money to oil companies. That being said, Republicans in the Trump administration are pushing back on that characterization. They’re saying they would like to purchase it from small to mid-sized refiners as well. But Democrats are questioning why they’re giving money to the oil industry at all.

Grant: On the purchase of oil right now for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Where does that stand now? 

Frazin: Just for the time being, it doesn’t seem like it’s going ahead. The Department of Energy put in a solicitation to purchase 30 million barrels of oil. They’ve since withdrawn that solicitation saying Congress didn’t appropriate enough funding for this. But if at a future date they appropriate more money, we will resubmit our proposal. That’s not out of the question. It could be added to a future stimulus package. Republicans could try again to get it into a future package.

Grant: One other issue that’s come up has to do with rulemaking at the Environmental Protection Agency. Some groups have asked the EPA to suspend rulemaking during the coronavirus outbreak. Is that right? 

Frazin: When the EPA and other government agencies put a rule forward, the public and experts and interested parties and anybody else gets a specific time period to comment on it. Then the agency is supposed to take those comments into consideration when it decides whether or not to go forward with this draft rule that it has put forward. But because everybody’s focus is kind of on the coronavirus right now, maybe some folks don’t have time or they don’t have the energy or their focus is elsewhere so they were not able to focus on these important environmental rules specifically.

For instance, the scientific community is so focused on fighting the coronavirus that they don’t have time to sort of turn to these environmental provisions and talk about why they would be helpful or harmful to people. A lot of groups and some states and cities as well are asking the EPA and the Interior Department to hold off on their rulemaking process right now or to extend the period of time in which the public is allowed to weigh in.

Grant: And what’s been the response from the agency? 

Frazin: It’s been mixed. The EPA has said there’s nothing stopping you from commenting. Regulations.gov is still up and running so we’re going to continue with business as usual. The Interior Department has said that it will evaluate things on a case by case basis.

Grant: Any rules in particular that are of concern during this time? 

Frazin: One is an EPA rule that opponents refer to as the secret science rule that would limit the use of studies that don’t make their underlying data public. The EPA says that’s important for transparency. But opponents say that it would limit the use of science in EPA rulemaking.

 

EPA Relaxes Enforcement Due to COVID-19, But State and Local Agencies Do Most Environmental Oversight