Looking Ahead to Obama’s Second Term – Thoughts on the Administration’s Environmental Agenda

Posted on December 14, 2012 by Daniel Riesel

Although the still-divided Congress is unlikely to pass significant new environmental legislation over the next four years, the second-term Obama administration has an opportunity to pursue its environmental agenda through the EPA with diminished fear of impacts on the next election. 

The current term saw a period of strong leadership at EPA, but there is a feeling that the agency has not allowed the other regulatory shoe to drop.  EPA stalled on several important regulations, as if anticipating the Romney complaint that excessive regulation was a cause of the recession. Having escaped the prospect of a president hostile to its mission, EPA is now prepared to roll out a queue of pending air pollution regulations in the coming weeks.  The regulations will include final national ambient air quality standards, revised power plant emission standards, and expanded boiler emission rules.   

Since the election, articles and opinion pieces have abounded that speculate on the Obama administration’s second-term approach to climate change. On November 12, 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed article suggesting that the administration could tackle both climate change and the recession by imposing a carbon tax.  A similar suggestion was made in the New Yorker on December 12, 2012.  This is undoubtedly a worthwhile concept, but it is probably a regulation too far.

The second Obama term could be an opportune time to revisit old chestnuts and resolve issues that have bedeviled both the regulated community and environmental advocates.  For example, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have been muddling through a proposed guidance document that aims to clarify the Supreme Court’s murky definition of “waters of the United States” subject to EPA jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. But why should EPA and the Corps issue mere guidance rather than promptly promulgate binding regulations, which are subject to judicial review?  As a result of adopting binding standards the agencies could gain, in addition to regulatory certainty, a strong basis to resist efforts to make the federal government the national waterfront rezoning authority.

Another stalled national environmental initiative that would benefit from robust leadership in the Obama II administration is EPA’s effort to update its regulations for industrial cooling water intake structures.  EPA proposed regulations, designed to protect aquatic organisms, have remained in draft form since March 2011; additional data has been collected and is being analyzed in the interim.  Pending final federal regulations, states have been left to adopt varying approaches to this important issue.

Finally, this period of relative freedom from election concerns might allow the administration to address a significant example of environmental unfairness, CERCLA’s scheme of sticking certain liable parties with the “orphan share” of environmental remediation costs that arise from contamination, generated over the last two centuries of industrial development, for which no financially solvent responsible party can be identified.  The orphan share is often laid at the doorstep of a financially solvent polluter that caused some, but not all, of the pollution at a Superfund site.  Fairness dictates that the public fund the orphan share, as opposed to the party that is prepared to step forward and clean up its own portion of the mess.  Perhaps such a policy might have a sobering effect on the members of the public who clamor for a return to pristine conditions, so long as they don’t have to pay for it.



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