Environmental Advocates Protest Outside EPA Headquarters Over the Slow Pace of New Climate and Clean Air Regulations

As supporters and opponents of Donald Trump traded chants of “Lock him up” and “USA” outside a Manhattan courtroom during the arraignment of the former president, protesters outside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C. had a more modest request for an agency Trump once tried to gut: “Do your job.”

Approximately 100 demonstrators marched to the agency’s headquarters on Tuesday afternoon to chants of “EPA, don’t delay!” and “Don’t wait, regulate!”

The group, a coalition of environmental and justice groups, demanded a faster rollout from the Biden administration of tightened climate and air quality regulations for fossil fuel power plants.

The protest came after the agency fell increasingly behind on eight key climate and clean air regulations including those governing the release of carbon dioxide, mercury and soot as well as the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog.

“It is the 21st century; we shouldn’t be living with 20th century pollution when we have the means to do otherwise,” Sharon Hawthorne, a demonstrator from Arlington, Virginia, said.

“We need stricter rules for our power plants.”

Two key climate rules—the carbon standards for new and existing power plants—are nearly a year behind schedule, according to a recent report by Evergreen Action, an advocacy group pushing for aggressive climate policy.  

Other regulations, including a stronger national smog standard, which would address air pollution that contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths worldwide each year, and a stronger coal ash rule regulating the storage of harmful waste from coal fired power plants, are a year or more behind prior schedules set by the agency.

“The agency needs to move forward full throttle,” Charles Harper, Evergreen Action’s power sector policy lead and a co-author of the report, said. “We’re really up against a tight deadline.”

Quentin Scott, federal policy director at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, speaks to protesters outside the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Credit: Emma Rickets

Quentin Scott, federal policy director at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, speaks to protesters outside the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Credit: Emma Rickets

The EPA did not immediately respond to questions from Inside Climate News about the reason for the delays.

The Biden administration promised in 2021 to cut carbon dioxide emissions across all sectors of the economy 50 percent by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August provides $370 billion for clean energy development that should reduce emissions by 40 percent by the end of the decade, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Further executive action is needed to meet the additional emissions reduction targets and to rein in pollution that disproportionately affects low income communities and communities of color, Harper said.

At the same time, the agency is still trying to recover from the departure of more than 1,200 employees during the Trump administration, a Supreme Court ruling on greenhouse gas emissions that constrained the path forward for potential rulemaking and ongoing efforts by Republican Senators to block key agency appointments.  

Last month, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) slammed potential EPA assistant administrator for the office of air and radiation, Joe Goffman, for his “dangerous regulatory record” and “job-killing agenda” in what was his second unsuccessful nomination hearing in as many years.

To safeguard against the potential rollback of environmental regulations, any proposed rules from the agency must be introduced this spring, Harper said.

Proposed rules must allow time for public comment before they can be finalized, a period that takes approximately one year. Once a new rule is finalized, lawmakers then have 60 legislative days to review the rule and potentially repeal it under the Congressional Review Act. Any rules introduced by the Biden administration that are finalized after mid-2024 could conceivably be repealed by Republicans if they control both the House and Senate after the 2024 elections.

“EPA does need to act with urgency to make sure that it does get these rules out ASAP,” Harper said.

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Harper expressed cautious optimism that the agency will soon release proposed rules for four of what he considers to be the most crucial regulations, including those governing carbon emissions from new and existing power plants, mercury emissions and coal ash storage.

Any publication of proposed rules would follow the recent release of the final version of the “Good Neighbor” rule, which addressed smog-forming pollution that travels beyond states’ boundaries and impacts air quality for millions of people living in downwind communities.

“We’re really encouraged to see that progress,” Harper said of the Good Neighbor rule and the anticipated release of additional proposed regulations. “It comes just in the nick of time.”

Carrie Jenks, the executive director of Harvard University’s environmental and energy law program, said the Biden administration set an ambitious agenda when it took office and has been working diligently to make sure that the rules they release withstand legal scrutiny.

“I think we learned from the Trump administration that it’s critical for rules to be done well,” Jenks said. “That’s essential, to make sure that the rules that they do finalize are upheld by the courts, and that in the end is really what matters.

“Some have criticized the administration for taking too long, but I think that the administration is taking a very methodical and diligent approach to these rulemakings,” Jenks added.

Bob Perciasepe, who served as EPA deputy administrator during the Obama administration and is an advisor for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said a June ruling by the Supreme Court on greenhouse gas emissions undoubtedly delayed EPA regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.  

“The Supreme Court taking the case, and then having to wait until June to take care of the case, and then having to take a few months at least to analyze the case, is probably one of the primary reasons they didn’t put the rule out last year,” Perciasepe said.

In West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled in June that a cap-and-trade approach to greenhouse gas regulation across the power sector was outside the agency’s authority. Instead, the court ruled that the agency can only impose limitations on emissions within the fenceline of each individual power plant. Any new rules released by the agency will have to focus on these more facility-specific requirements.

While optimistic about pending regulations, Harper, of Evergreen Action, urged climate and environmental justice advocates to continue to call on the agency to take strong and immediate action.

“These rules aren’t out just quite yet,” he said.

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