A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on Aug. 21, 2019, in Norco, Louisiana. Located about 10 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, the plant agreed to install $10 million in pollution monitoring and control equipment in 2018 to settle allegations that flares used to burn off emissions were operating in violation of federal law (the Clean Air Act). Many of the coastal parishes in Louisiana have a long and ongoing history in oil and gas production, which is often at odds with concerns of environmentalists. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Federal environmental enforcement, as measured by Environmental Protection Agency civil cases closed against polluters, hit a two-decade low in 2022, per a report released last week by a national environmental group that blames budget cuts, staff shortages and the U.S. Senate’s failure to confirm key leaders.
The Environmental Integrity Project said the 72 civil enforcement cases closed in court during the fiscal year that ended in September under President Joe Biden’s administration was the “lowest number in at least 22 years.”
The Trump administration’s EPA closed an average of 94 cases per year while the Obama administration averaged 210 per year, the report says.
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“The Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency was expected to step up enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws after the investigation and prosecution of polluters reached new lows under the Trump administration,” the group said in a statement. “It has yet to keep that promise, thanks to a refusal by Congress to reverse more than a decade of budget cuts or to confirm President Biden’s nominee to head EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.”
The number of people working in EPA’s civil enforcement program has fallen from 3,294 in 2012 to 2,253 in 2022. There were 189 criminal enforcement EPA agents in 2012 but that number had fallen to 155 by 2022, the report says.
“The professional staff at EPA appears to be doing the best it can with increasingly limited resources,” said Eric Schaeffer, the Environmental Integrity Project’s executive director and the former director of civil enforcement at EPA. “But they are not helped by ruthless budget cuts and the inability of the Senate to confirm President Biden’s pick for Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, David Uhlmann.”
Uhlmann, a former chief of the environmental crimes section of the U.S. Department of Justice and director of the University of Michigan’s environmental law program, was nominated in June 2021 for the post, but saw his confirmation vote stalled.
“The former president’s hostility to EPA and to the enforcement of environmental laws in particular are well known,” Schaeffer said. “But Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for the past four years and the Senate for the past two. At this point, the Congressional refusal to support the enforcement of environmental laws it enacted is a bipartisan problem.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., placed holds on Biden’s nominees over a dispute with EPA about Louisiana’s application to permit, site and monitor carbon sequestration wells. (A hold is an informal practice in which a senator informs Senate leadership that they object to a floor vote on a nomination or measure.)
“Senator Cassidy does not have a hold on any EPA nominees because none of those who have been considered in committee have been brought to the Senate floor for a final vote,” a spokesperson for the senator said Wednesday. “The senator does not plan on holding Uhlmann should he be brought to the Senate floor, however the senator plans to hold other nominees. … EPA continues to block the state government’s ability to lower emissions via capturing and storing CO2 which is a vital step in preserving existing jobs and strengthening Louisiana’s economy.”
In the meantime, however, enforcement at hundreds of facilities with major air and water pollution violations is languishing, the report contends.
“EPA enforcement records show at least 257 major sources of air pollution with high priority violations that have persisted for more than 30 months without any real enforcement response,” the Environmental Integrity Project said. “Similarly, discharge monitoring reports show that more than 900 facilities have violated water pollution limits at least 50 times over the past three years but faced no significant enforcement action.”
The EPA’s overall budget was nearly $9.5 billion in 2012, with a workforce of 17,106. For the fiscal year that ended in September, it had a budget of nearly $9.6 billion and 14,581 employees.
Per the EPA, the budget for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance was $593 million in 2011, falling to $539 million in 2022.
“The EPA is proud of its accomplished enforcement work in Fiscal Year 22, especially considering the resource constraints the agency continues to face as a result of a decade of declining enforcement budgets,” said Melissa Sullivan, an EPA spokeswoman. In an executive order in 2021, Biden directed EPA to strengthen enforcement of violations “with disproportionate impact on underserved communities.”
“Our targeted enforcement work in overburdened and vulnerable communities significantly increased over past years and demonstrates the administration’s commitment to holding polluters accountable,” Sullivan said. “President Biden’s budget calls for a significant increase in enforcement resources that would help reverse the decline in enforcement numbers that has occurred over the last decade.”
In the budget for the fiscal year that ends in September of 2023, Biden’s administration sought a total EPA budget of nearly $11.9 billion, about 1,900 new full time employees and an additional $213 million for civil enforcement efforts.
Congress is currently finalizing appropriations legislation that includes a $10.1 billion EPA budget, less than Biden sought but still an increase of $576 million. It includes an additional $71.6 million for enforcement and compliance.
“We’re pleased to see Congress is increasing EPA’s enforcement budget in their 2023 omnibus spending bill, and call on our leaders to take immediate steps to further improve enforcement of environmental laws by confirming David Uhlman as head of EPA’s enforcement and compliance office as soon as possible,” said Patrick Drupp, the Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director.
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