On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute Deputy Director of Research Laura Rabinow discusses her recent research examining the capacity of the Environmental Protection Agency to support the Biden administration’s ambitious climate and environmental goals following regulatory and administrative changes at the agency under the Trump administration and years of staffing and budget declines.


Laura Rabinow, Deputy Director of Research, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Learn More:

Rebuilding Federal Enviromental Protections


  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:05

    This is Policy Outsider. I’m Alex Morse. Climate change is real and we’re seeing the adverse impacts in real time. Examples include the recent devastating cold snap in Texas, raging wildfires in California, and surges in intense hurricanes and other tropical storms. Today’s guest, Laura Rabinow, deputy director of research at the Rockefeller Institute, joins us to discuss her latest research into the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, the federal agency charged with protecting environmental and human health. Laura’s recent research examines the regulatory and administrative changes implemented at the EPA. Under Trump, declines in funding and staffing at the agency and how these changes affect the agency’s ability to properly fulfill its mission. We’ll discuss the state of the EPA in more detail, as well as how the agency fits into the Biden Administration’s ambitious climate and environmental goals. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 1:32

    Here today is Laura Rabinow, deputy director of research and director of the Center for Law and Policy Solutions at the Rockefeller Institute. Thanks for joining today.

    Laura Rabinow 1:40

    Thank you for having me.

    Alexander Morse 1:42

    Let’s start with the big picture of why Biden has signaled climate will be an important part of his agenda.

    Laura Rabinow 1:47

    Thank you so much, Alex. I think we’ve seen Biden commit to some really ambitious climate, energy, and environmental goals during the campaign, since he’s been elected, and now taken office. Those I think are largely buoyed by the fact that we live in a time where climate change is the existential crisis of the generations around us. And that for too long, policymakers have largely kicked the can down the road, relaxed, or rolled back the necessary regulatory changes to avert the worst and most devastating impacts of climate change. Not only for the most vulnerable people among us, who are already seeing its impacts, but for the broader public. And so we’re in this increasingly smaller window in which to make those policy changes in order to avoid those kinds of consequences.

    Alexander Morse 2:53

    So what are some examples that Biden has signaled that he wants to focus on?

    Laura Rabinow 2:58

    The Biden Administration has set forth a goal of having 100 percent clean energy sector and net zero emissions by 2050. That’s pretty huge. They’ve also put forth a goal of decarbonizing the electricity sector by 2035, establishing new methane emissions limits, creating policies for clean and safe drinking water, and infrastructure investments for conserving 30 percent of US lands by 2030. And for, I believe, investing about $1.7 trillion over 10 years in clean energy and environmental justice.

    Alexander Morse 3:35

    These are no small challenges. It’s imperative that they have to start somewhere and what your piece focuses on is how to rebuild the EPA. I hope you could just give us a little bit of background of what the Environmental Protection Agency is and what it does.

    Laura Rabinow 3:53

    Sure, so the EPA has been in place since 1970. And it is our preeminent federal agency that deals with environmental issues. There are others that obviously intersect heavily, but it is our first and foremost agency in this respect. It came into being in the 1970s right alongside the kind of landmark federal legislation that we often think of today as being so important to protecting our environment and public health, like the Clean Air Act, which happened in 1970 right alongside the EPA. The Clean Water Act shortly thereafter, then the Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and on and on and on. It’s very much a case of building the wheels for the car while you’re trying to start going. The agency has over its history had a kind of expanding purview of areas to protect people and the environment. Now at the same time, they’ve struggled with limited resources in terms of funding and staffing. And that’s changed quite significantly over the last few decades.

    Alexander Morse 5:09

    So this is what these historical trends are then? We’re looking at more responsibilities but less money in the budget for its mission?

    Laura Rabinow 5:18

    Exactly, exactly. Even though the EPA has had an expanding mission over its history, its budget in terms of real dollars has decreased by 50 percent since about the early 80s. At the same time, its staffing has now decreased significantly, such that we’re about at the same level that we were in 1989.

    Alexander Morse 5:46

    Do you mean that there are the same number of full-time equivalent employees today as in 1989? Not adjusted for anything else?

    Laura Rabinow 5:55

    Yes. We’ve fallen about 22 percent, to just over 14,000 people.

    Alexander Morse 6:03

    When was the peak?

    Laura Rabinow 6:04

    1. So you do see a curve between 1989 and now a little bit. Since that time, we’ve largely been decreasing or stagnant.

    Alexander Morse 6:16

    Why is that happening?

    Laura Rabinow 6:19

    Partly it has to do with federal allocation of dollars and the proposed budgets under different administrations. Partly it has to do with refilling certain positions, a number of factors, but the funding comes into play. So for example, Superfund sites, toxic waste sites, across the country that we designate, try to remediate through the EPA and the responsible parties involved. Because of decreased funding at the EPA, overall, we’ve seen decreased enforcement in that area and decreased funding for the remediation of those sites. That’s complicated by the fact that Congress didn’t renew part of its funding through polluter pay fees.

    Alexander Morse 7:07

    What’s a polluter pay fee?

    Laura Rabinow 7:09

    It’s a fee that’s essentially put on to polluting parties or potentially polluting parties. Perhaps an industry like the chemical industry or the oil industry that says, “Okay, if you want to make, produce, and sell these products here, you need to pay into this fee ahead of time.” That fee then takes care of any unexpected spills or accidents that take place because of your product. Effectively, it means that the polluter pays instead of the taxpayer.

    Alexander Morse 7:48

    And so right now, those Superfund programs are not being funded at historical levels. So if there is a problem, this is kind of falling on to the taxpayer.

    Laura Rabinow 7:58

    Right, because we no longer require them to pay that kind of fee, when we do need to remediate that cost comes out of all of our pocketbooks.

    Alexander Morse 8:09

    Could you expand on some of the things that the Trump Administration has done that have deregulated the EPA?

    Laura Rabinow 8:15

    Sure, as I noted with Superfunds, the number of new projects receiving funding has gone to a 30 year low. But in addition to that, the administration has reduced staffing, particularly for STEM.

    Alexander Morse 8:32

    STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.

    Laura Rabinow 8:36

    Which are key to creating new regulations and enforcing the ones we have. They’ve also rolled back about 100 rules under the EPA that have to do with our environmental and environmental health protections.

    Alexander Morse 8:51

    Could you go over some of those rollbacks are? Just a few of them. There are over 100.

    Laura Rabinow 8:56

    There are over 100, unfortunately. A few of the key ones, although there are still a number of really important rules that we’re talking about here, are the rollback of the fuel economy standards put in place under the Obama Administration, which required that fuel efficiency increase by 5 percent annually.

    Alexander Morse 9:19

    That’s for miles per gallon, right?

    Laura Rabinow 9:21

    That’s exactly what that means. The Trump Administration effectively replaced that with a 1.5 percent increase, which is about what would happen perhaps if we didn’t have a rule at all, mitigating the real benefits of the rule itself. Another is the Waters of the United States rule.

    Alexander Morse 9:43

    And I’ll note Laura is an expert in this subject. She’s authored a piece for the Rockefeller Institute on waters of the United States titled “The Shape of Water Regulations.” Now back to Laura.

    Laura Rabinow 9:54

    Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, is the term that’s used under the Clean Water Act to designate which waters get protected and which don’t. In 2015, we saw an expansion of that rule. But in 2020, the Trump Administration put in place a new Navigable Waters Protection rule, which effectively worked to narrow that definition so that it excluded explicitly 12 categories of water bodies. Those included, importantly from an environmental health standpoint, ephemeral stream and what are termed nonadjacent wetlands. These are about 51 percent of mapped wetlands in the United States. Wetlands provide a really key function in our environment. They’re effectively the kidneys of our ecosystems.

    Alexander Morse 10:48

    Fifty-one percent of wetlands are the kidneys of the United States. What does that mean?

    Laura Rabinow 10:53

    It means they provide important filtering functions throughout our ecosystem for certain kinds of minerals, deposits, and other kinds of things. They also provide a really important absorption function, particularly in cases where you have flooding.

    Alexander Morse 11:11

    So it sounds like between fuel economy standards and narrowing the definition of these Waters of the United States, these rollbacks were effectively damaging the environment.

    Laura Rabinow 11:22

    Right. So we want to make sure through the EPA, which is charged with protecting our environment at the federal level, that we’re putting in place standards and rules that effectively help them do that work.

    Alexander Morse 11:38

    Let’s return to what we talked at the top of the podcast and the Biden Administration about what he could do specifically to help rebuild the EPA and mitigate climate change?

    Laura Rabinow 11:51

    I do think it’s a really important point you brought up that all of these tactics and kinds of rulemaking, or lack of funding, they’re not new efforts. But they are a culmination of efforts that are particularly visible and that come at a very critical time for us to deal with climate change effectively. One thing in particular that I would note, as an example of this is the secret science rule that effectively was put in place in 2020. In order to require that any underlying studies used in the rulemaking process by the EPA has to be publicly available, that that data underlying the studies needs to be publicly available. That rule was not new. It comes from a much earlier amendment called the Shelby Amendment in 1996 to an omnibus appropriations bill that effectively said, if you’re going to get federal funding for science, you need to make that science accessible through Freedom of Information Act law.

    Alexander Morse 13:07

    Was that meant to improve the use of science or to exclude science?

    Laura Rabinow 13:12

    There’s an earlier industry memo coming out of the tobacco industry that effectively outlines strategies for contesting and making regulatory science more amenable to them. The Shelby Amendment takes an idea from that memo a few years later in 1996 and codified it into law through an appropriations bill. It says that if you’re getting federal funding for science, everything except some very like personal identifying information has to be foilable. That means it has to be accessible through our Freedom of Information Act law that people, the public, can file to get.

    Alexander Morse 13:57

    How does that impact passing climate laws?

    Laura Rabinow 14:00

    In effect, what that does is it limits the kind of science that can receive federal funding to receive the support needed to do these studies in order to demonstrate environmental health harms. The secret science rule effectively expands what that does in saying that not only do studies receiving federal funding need to have data that’s publicly accessible, but if you want to use studies in any rulemaking that needs to be made accessible.

    Laura Rabinow 14:01

    So how might that relate to the Biden Administration in what’s part of his agenda?

    Laura Rabinow 14:13

    Well, because the Trump Administration rushed through the rulemaking process with regard to this, quote, unquote, secret science rule. The Biden Administration had an opportunity to really undo that before it went any further without having to go back through the entire world-making process. And so in early February, the Biden EPA basically requested from a federal court that they vacate the rule based on the fact that the Trump Administration hadn’t followed the Administrative Procedures Act and waited 30 days before making the rule effective. And the court granted that request. There are other rules that may be subject to the Congressional Review Act that may also speed up the process of regulatory review or revocation because they were passed so close to the date between the last session and this session of Congress and the new incoming administration as well. But the Biden Administration has, upon taking office, already ordered a review of all or most of the regulatory changes and rollbacks that happened under the Trump Administration. And so that process is already beginning to take place.

    Alexander Morse 16:12

    Do we have an estimated timeframe of when these decisions might come through?

    Laura Rabinow 16:18

    It’s going to probably vary considerably. For some of them, it will take quite a lot of time to go through this process. We could get earlier recommendations but we may not actually be able to see the rule change for a year or two.

    Alexander Morse 16:39

    So in the essence of time, does it behoove the Biden Administration to move forward with their own rulemaking to substitute the congressional review process?

    Laura Rabinow 16:49

    Not all of those would need to go through courts but they would need to go through a regulatory process. And that process is lengthy for many cases. Likewise, new rulemaking is not a short process. In either case, I think we’ve got some time to see the Biden Administration address these rollbacks fully come to fruition.

    Alexander Morse 17:16

    Okay, so, no matter what change is likely to take some time in terms of rulemaking and putting forth policies that are going to help address climate change. But where are we in the process now? Who’s being appointed to what leadership positions? What policies are being put forward? Basically, tell us what’s going on?

    Laura Rabinow 17:38

    That’s right, new rulemaking or revised rulemaking will take time. New funding and staffing will take time. Right now, Biden has nominated Michael Regan, the former head of the North Carolina environmental agency, as the head of the EPA. He’s been sent to the Senate for confirmation but we’re still awaiting the final vote. So that has yet to take place. But outside of the EPA, Biden has importantly signaled that addressing climate change and other environmental, particularly environmental justice issues, is going to be a whole of government approach, as is necessary. He’s also created a couple of new positions, one within the White House and one foreign policy facing to which he’s appointed the former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and former Secretary of State John Kerry to head up climate change efforts on both of those fronts, and put in place a White House interagency task force to coordinate climate change policies across agencies. That’s really key because it’s not just the EPA, even though the EPA is very central in this effort, it’s also the Department of the Interior. It is also our partner nations to the north and south of us and across the ocean.

    Alexander Morse 19:09

    This is an executive branch first these positions? They’re brand new in this country?

    Laura Rabinow 19:14

    That’s right. They’re completely new positions. And alongside those new positions, he’s signaled, early signals, but he has begun to signal some efforts on climate change. We’ve rejoined the Paris Climate Accord in the last month, they’ve revoked the permit for the Keystone pipeline, and they’ve put in place White House positions and what will be EPA positions on environmental justice to make sure that is part of the conversation.

    Alexander Morse 19:49

    Well, Laura, as we’ve hit a lot of times in this episode, climate change is an all-encompassing problem that’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of, unfortunately, time to really see change and progress be made because we talked up at the top of the podcast that the time to act is now. But we’re glad that you were here to help break down what’s going on at the federal level and what’s important to keep an eye on. So we’ll be talking to you shortly to really give us an update on what’s happening.

    Laura Rabinow 20:23

    Thank you so much, Alex.

    Alexander Morse 20:37

    Thanks again to Laura Rabinow for hopping on to discuss the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency and how recent and historical changes have adversely affected the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission and protect environmental and human health. I encourage you to learn more and check out her latest piece, “Rebuilding Federal Environmental Protections,” by visiting our website at rockinst.org. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 21:44

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at Rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.