|If the EPA isn't enforcing stuff, who will be?|
Once upon a time -- and we're talking like three years ago -- the Environmental Protection Agency was a force to be reckoned with. EPA regulators were throwing their weight around and pushing the issue on things like biofuels, air quality and the effect of fracking on water quality. They had the White House behind them and the budget to do it, so they did.
Well, it seems the age of the mighty EPA is a thing of the past, at least for now. With a shrinking budget, fewer resources and a dearth of political will, the EPA is being transformed from a tiger of an enforcement agency -- taking on the oil industry and tilting at air-quality issues with the states -- and becoming a litter-box-trained house cat. In this metaphor, it's an organization not above catching a mouse or two, but don't expect it to bring home the big game any time soon, says Tracy Hester, professor of environmental law at University of Houston.
"The program has been going through some changes. The pot is getting smaller and smaller, and the EPA is having to pick and choose what gets enforced and what doesn't," says Hester.
At the end of 2013, the EPA announced it was considering letting nature take its course and not pushing for clean-up efforts on the Cavalcade Street Superfund site in north Houston. If the new "cleanup" plan is approved, the agency will make sure cancer-causing contaminants don't get out of the site, but it will end efforts to try and actually clean up the Superfund site.
Officially, the agency is stepping back because cleaning up these sites is really hard, but it's not a decision the EPA of a few years ago would have made. "The EPA backing off like that is pretty unusual," says Hester.
The EPA is also expected to take a hands-off approach to fracking issues. While there are some concerns (as anyone who has lived on top of the Barnett Shale can attest) about the effect of hydraulic fracturing drilling techniques on water quality -- concerns that were raised in an internal Watchdog report made public on Christmas Eve -- federal regulators lack the political will and the resources to do anything about it, Reuters reports.
The internal report was focused on a case from 2011 when the EPA initially issued an emergency order asking oil and gas drilling company Range Resources to monitor some water wells in Parker County, Texas. This was a strong stance to take, but then the EPA reversed itself in 2012 and stepped away from enforcement of the order.
And there will be more decisions -- though "undecisions" might be a more accurate word -- like that to come. "Bottom line, the EPA has announced it is not going to have the same enforcement it has had in prior years, and that almost always means a reduced number of enforcement acts," Hester said.More »