- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2009

To appreciate the extent to which the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama is a regulator reborn, consider this: EPA officials have begun to cut air pollution by invoking the Clean Water Act.

Long quiescent under President George W. Bush, the agency is churning out initiatives and regulations at a pace that pleases its friends in the environmental movement and frightens many in the business community.

In the past eight months, the EPA has proposed eight major new regulations for air pollutants that would strengthen the nation’s clean air laws almost overnight. In contrast, in the first eight months of the Bush administration, the agency proposed one small regulation that affected a limited number of polluters.

“The Obama EPA is issuing more significant rule-makings at a much quicker rate than the EPA did in eight years of the Bush administration,” said Roger Martella, who served as the agency’s general counsel under Mr. Bush.

Since February, the EPA has placed 175 surface coal mining projects under review and halted 79 of them because of their effects on surface water. For 30 years, the agency did not object to the air pollution caused when miners blast dirt into the air to expose coal deposits. Now, invoking the Clean Water Act, the agency is moving to block, at least for now, the projects when they sully nearby streams with the same pollutant.

The agency also has, for the first time, revoked a permit for a surface mine because the project in West Virginia could violate the Clean Water Act.

More broadly, the agency has announced there could be a link between greenhouse gas emissions and public health and welfare - a prelude to new mandates for corporations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The agency also agreed to allow California to regulate tailpipe emissions, increased fuel efficiency standards for cars for the first time in more than 25 years and won White House approval to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest polluters.

And that’s just the beginning.

The agency’s speed has caught the attention of environmentalists, who applaud the EPA’s new activism, and business executives, who worry about a ballooning bureaucracy.

“The Obama EPA is certainly moving faster than its predecessor to improve environmental safeguards, but I don’t see that the Obama EPA has done anything too hastily,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group.

But business groups say the agency has issued major rules that have wide impact without taking the time needed to make sure the repercussions are well understood.

“It’s been really a cookie-cutter approach: Here’s the rule, give us your comments, no extensions, and then the final rule is issued,” said William Kovacs, senior vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And the agency shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, analysts think the agency’s most sweeping and contentious decisions are yet to come.

“A lot of thinking and drafting [of carbon dioxide regulations] had been done under the Bush administration, and the Obama folks have built on that,” said Jeff Holmstead, former assistant administrator of the EPA for air and radiation in the Bush administration.

Within the next six months, the agency is expected to confirm the link between greenhouse gases and public health, issue its proposed 35-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency standard for cars and spell out how it would force utilities, refineries and manufacturers to pollute less.

Any one of those tasks would be a major undertaking, but taking on everything at once has the business community questioning whether the EPA is taking on more than it can handle.

“Of course we’re worried, because no one has seen a complete picture of what [the EPA’s proposals] are going to look like,” Mr. Kovacs said.

But the agency has said it is moving quickly to avoid rather than create problems. It also has said it would not impose new regulations without having the means to carry them out.

EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the Obama administration is moving to implement orders left languishing by the previous administration, including a Supreme Court decision paving the way for the agency to issue new rules on evaluating the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions and to consider rules to reduce them.

“The rules will save people money, reduce our dependence on oil by 1.8 billion barrels, and eliminate nearly 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas pollution” each year, Ms. Andy said.

Legislation pending in Congress would force large polluters such as refineries, manufacturers and utilities to cut their pollution, but the EPA has said it is ready and willing to impose the restrictions itself if Congress doesn’t act.

“There’s certainly no question that [the EPA] has been very aggressive in getting these rule-makings out,” Mr. Holmstead said of the proposed rules the agency has issued since Mr. Obama took office.

Environmentalists assert that the EPA has to move at a brisk pace to “improve environmental safeguards” that were “deregulated” by the previous administration.

“I think it is moving pretty methodically through the list of unresolved environmental issues that it inherited,” Clean Air Watch’s Mr. O’Donnell said.

Mr. Holmstead said he does not think the Bush White House intended to regulate all carbon dioxide emitters when it announced the actions it would take after the high court’s ruling.

The Chamber of Commerce said it is closely following the EPA’s proposals to regulate carbon emitters and the impact that such proposals could have on businesses - both large and small. Mr. Kovacs added that the Chamber of Commerce is ready to take action if the EPA threatens to overstep its regulatory bounds.

“There’s going to be a lot of turmoil for a while because [the EPA’s proposals] are some of the biggest regulatory proceedings in the history of the United States,” Mr. Kovacs said. “If [the EPA] comes out with findings that would cause regulatory turmoil, I would imagine we would sue.”

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