What is the future of the EPA with a Republican Senate?

Thursday, November 5, 2020 - 1:52pm


Design courtesy of Cara Jhang

With polls having closed and the result in — albeit, after a painfully long wait — it appears as though former Vice President Joe Biden has won the presidency while Democrats have kept the House of Representatives but fell short of taking back the Senate for now. Controlling the White House and the lower chamber of Congress while not having the Senate will complicate matters when it comes to climate change, which Biden called the “number one issue facing humanity.” 

Add in a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court following the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, and potential-President Biden will be facing a tough road ahead to pass any meaningful legislation to fight climate change or protect the environment. Without the support of either the Senate or the Supreme Court, Democrats will need to rely on the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental regulations and protections. 

On its own, the EPA cannot pass any legislation that would allocate money and resources toward an environmental project. However, it does have the power to pass regulations as well as enforce existing laws with fines and sanctions. The EPA can also take companies to court if they fail to comply with the protections. Since the EPA is defined as a “regulatory agency,” it is granted power under the Code of Federal Regulations to establish rules that people and corporations are required by law to follow. 

President Donald Trump and his appointed EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler have completely gutted environmental protections. They have rolled back 72 different regulations and are in the process of removing 27 more, bringing the total number of regulations overturned to 99. Against the advice of many scientists, Trump’s EPA rejected a strict standard for improving air quality. Back in 2019, Trump weakened the Endangered Species Act, making it easier to take a species off the list and decreasing protections for animals on it. About one year later, Wheeler revised the Clean Water Act, making it easier for coal plants to pollute neighboring rivers. Trump and Wheeler also threw away limits on methane restrictions at oil and gas sites. Trump has used his four years in office to devastate the environment — among many other things — putting pressure on the next administration to clean up the mess. 

When Biden is sworn into the presidency in January of next year, it will be extremely telling who he brings into his administration with him. Under Obama, the EPA administrators were Lisa Jackson, a chemical engineer, and Gina McCarthy, an environmental health and air quality expert. If a Biden administration looks anything like Obama’s administration, then Biden, at the very least, will not nominate a former coal lobbyist like Trump has. 

Who Biden decides to nominate for EPA administrator will tell us a lot about how he will govern his four years as president. A name that has been floated numerous times for the position is Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who has been friends with Biden for almost 50 years. Carper serves as the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and has joined Biden in calling the climate crisis the “the greatest crisis we face right now on our planet.” Carper also boasts a 100% voting record according to the League of Conservation Voters. Another name being floated is U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., whom Biden trusted to put on the Biden-Sanders unity task force for climate change. McEachin serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Committee on Natural Resources and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Other names that have been floated include Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Democratic Nominee and Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. Biden’s pick will tell us a lot about how he will deal with the environment and climate change. He can pick a more moderate choice like Carper, McEachin or Kerry and the next four years will be filled with small, incremental changes. He could opt for a progressive option like Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders or Markey and the EPA can lead with bold, aggressive sweeping changes that will clean up our environment and greatly improve public health. While Sanders has called Biden “the most progressive Democratic nominee since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” his EPA choice will tell us a great deal about the truth to that bold statement. 

While the EPA will be a necessary and vital tool for environmental policy during the next four years, it will also tell us how far left Biden is willing to go. During the debate, when Trump stated that Biden will “listen to the scientists” as an attempted insult, Biden needed only one word to respond, “yes.” Biden has repeatedly said he will “follow the science” despite refusing to commit to banning fracking, which a majority of scientists believe is destroying the environment and public health. Biden must make a progressive EPA pick in order to truly “listen to the scientists.”

Alexander Nobel can be reached at anobel@umich.edu

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