The EPA offered a glimpse of a plan to “reform” the agency—but it’s only broad strokes, prompting questions from Administrator Scott Pruitt’s critics and supporters alike about what the results will be.
The reform plan is tucked into the Environmental Protection Agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget justification, which delineates program-level impacts of the Trump administration’s Feb. 12 proposal to cut nearly a quarter from the agency’s funding levels.
The plan sketches out the EPA’s efforts to implement President Donald Trump’s March 2017 executive order calling for a reorganization of the executive branch.
But Pruitt’s critics and supporters say it’s difficult to tell what specific actions will stem from the reform plan, of which elements are not complete. The plan centers on the use of “lean management,” which seeks to eliminate wastes of time and resources and to boost the value organizations get out of their operations.
“A cynical person can say, ‘This is what reorganization efforts always look like—a lot of impressive rhetoric and claims,’” Myron Ebell, energy and environment director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg Environment.
“This sounds like a lot of the typical verbiage about how to do a better job,” said Ebell, who headed the Trump EPA transition team. He added some is “undoubtedly real,” but some is “window dressing.”
And those concerned about Pruitt’s leadership question the true intentions of his “reform” push.
“There’s always things in government that can be done better,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, told Bloomberg Environment. “There’s probably a thoughtful way” for the agency to get the work done and be a little leaner.
But “it’s what they mean to do with it, and what their objectives really are in terms of shrinking EPA’s mission and cutting it way back” that causes concern, said Schaeffer, who served as EPA’s civil enforcement director until 2002.
The lean management approach is spearheaded by EPA Chief of Operations Henry Darwin. He helped implement the management approach at Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality, where he served as director from 2011 to 2015.
The EPA intends to incorporate lean management into several initiatives it outlines in its plan, including speeding up permitting and reducing reporting obligations for industry. In addition, the EPA says it is reviewing its “field presence,” including regional offices and laboratories.
But the strategy doesn’t mention any plans to shutter regional facilities—a concern of environmental groups and EPA career employees. For example, Pruitt has been exploring a plan to move the work of the EPA’s 10 regional offices and create smaller offices in each of the 50 states, according to sources and news reports.
Ebell, who advocates for slimmed-down EPA regional offices, said he’s not yet sold on that approach.
“No one centralized office can deal with 50 sub-offices. There’s going to have to be some intermediate structure that probably looks a lot like the regional offices,” he said.
“The fact that it’s not in this plan means that [the White House budget office] hasn’t been sold on it either is my guess,” Ebell added.
Pruitt, during a Jan. 30 Senate environment committee hearing, said agency officials have just begun an internal discussion about a 50-state office approach.
“One of the things that we ought to engage in as far as a collaborative discussion is whether it makes sense to locate operational units in each of the state capitals across this country to ensure that there is a focus on issues that are specific to that state,” Pruitt said in response to questions from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
He added he would “welcome the input” of lawmakers “on what makes sense there as it relates to better delivering services across the states and the country.”
The agency’s plan does list several “reorganizations” that are underway or were proposed in fiscal year 2018. For example, the EPA is consolidating both its environmental justice work and its National Environmental Policy Act work into the agency’s policy office.
But it’s unclear how Pruitt and his team are making decisions to consolidate agency work or change office structure, John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees division that represents EPA employees, told Bloomberg Environment.
The EPA should perform a “workload, workforce analysis” when considering a reorganization, to look at the function of the office or division, examine how many staff are needed, and identify whether there are opportunities to reduce workforce, he said.
“It would be nice if they would be more transparent and they would show us a study...instead of just somebody’s brainchild,” O’Grady said. “These might be good ideas, but they’re not showing us anything and they certainly don’t share anything with the staff.”
Communication with state groups has been inconsistent, but steadily improving, say agency observers.
“There is now a door of communication open,” Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told Bloomberg Environment. He said the EPA recently asked the group—which represents air agencies from 40 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and 116 metropolitan areas—to participate in a lean management event in the coming weeks.
Keogh sees value in implementing lean management techniques where inefficiencies are evident, but he stressed such efforts need to support the mission of protecting the environment—not cutting staff and resources for the sake of shrinking the agency.
Lean management has enabled several state agencies, including Arizona’s environment department, to “do a lot more, frankly, with a lot less,” Keogh said. But Trump’s Feb. 12 budget request proposes a more than 30 percent cut to state grants that would make it difficult for state agencies already strapped for resources, he said.
“We endorse cooperative federalism. But the implication in that is greater responsibility accrued to state and local agencies,” Keogh said. “That’s not consistent with fewer resources, no matter how much you ‘lean’ this thing.”
The Environmental Council of States, which represents all 50 state environment agencies, declined to comment.
The Association for Air Pollution Control Agencies, which represents 20 state air agencies pointed to the group’s comments on the EPA’s draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2018-2022.
Those comments call for “stable, adequate resources” and a “strengthening of partnerships” with states and local communities.
Minimal State Oversight Feared
The EPA, in its plan, also says it is working with interested parties to “develop a comprehensive system” to “evaluate state and local implementation of federal environmental programs.” But the agency didn’t yet provide details on what a revised oversight approach would look like.
Schaeffer said he’s concerned Pruitt’s approach would mean minimal oversight, and he’d like to see the EPA do a review of what the statutes say about the agency’s oversight responsibilities.
“EPA has a really tough job under the statute. They are supposed to second-guess states,” he said, adding that the EPA’s oversight presence is already lacking in many states. “We’d like to see more.”
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(Corrects 24th paragraph to clarify the number of state and local air agencies represented by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.)