EPA Scrambles on Year-End Regulatory Push

Amy Harder
December 21, 2012

Forget the fiscal cliff and the National Rifle Association. The Environmental Protection Agency really got back to business on Friday after an election-year bottleneck, unleashing two new regulations and a controversial report on oil and natural-gas drilling.

The trio of EPA news developments is part of the agency’s expected year-end push after several rules were kept in regulatory limbo much of this year as President Obama sought reelection. Congressional Republicans have accused Obama of holding back the agency's regulatory agenda just until after the election. 

EPA’s announcements on Friday will likely provide political fodder for the GOP. But even Republicans might not focus much on EPA’s actions on a day when Washington is transfixed on the fiscal cliff, the NRA's first press conference since the elementary school shooting in Connecticut, Obama’s selection of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to be his secretary of State, and the funeral for Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. And don’t forget most people, including policymakers, are trying to get home to spend the holidays with their families. 

The pair of rules that EPA released on Friday will impose tougher air-pollution standards for industrial boilers and for the cement industry. Boilers, which burn fossil fuels to produce electricity and heat, are found in all kinds of buildings, ranging from hospitals to manufacturing plants. The agency said on Friday that it was issuing the cement rule to meet a legal deadline.

Also on Friday, EPA issued a preliminary report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking-water supplies. This drilling technology, nicknamed “fracking,” is controversial for its potential effects on the environment, but it also is key for unlocking newly discovered reserves of oil and natural gas. Fracking involves injecting large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to break apart rocks holding the fuel.

The almost 300-page “progress” report lays out what EPA has found and how it is conducting the study. People hoping for declarative statements that green- or red-light fracking will be disappointed.

“The report does not draw conclusions about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources,” EPA said in its release of the report. EPA plans to release the completed study in 2014, and at that point the public will be able to comment.

Because this Friday is a particularly busy news day, EPA’s actions will likely get buried more than they would have on a slower news day. But EPA is no stranger to the Friday news-dump strategy. Resources for the Future, a nonprofit and nonpartisan environmental group based in Washington, culled through more than 21,000 press releases issued by EPA between 1994 and 2009 to conclude the agency announced new regulations and enforcement actions on Fridays and before holidays, “a time when news has the least impact on media coverage and financial markets.”

Last Friday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced a tougher standard for soot pollution that comes from a host of sources, such as cars and power plants. EPA was facing a legal deadline to issue the standard on that day. That news got buried deep beneath the coverage of the Connecticut school shooting, which occurred that morning.