On March 10, 2021, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Michael Regan as the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a 66-34 vote, with 16 Republicans joining Democrats in support. Administrator Regan, who previously served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, will oversee developing and enforcing regulations, along with implementing the environmental laws that Congress has written.
During his confirmation process, Regan drew upon his former roles as an EPA employee and head of North Carolina’s environmental agency to field a wide variety of questions from senators on topics ranging from approaches to tackling climate change and environmental justice to air and water regulations and pesticide use.
At his February 3 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Regan stressed that the best way “to address complex challenges … is by convening stakeholders … fostering an open dialogue rooted in a respect for science, a clear understanding of the law and a commitment to building consensus around pragmatic solutions.” He also stressed that it is not always possible to “simply regulate our way out of every problem we face.” This pragmatic approach to governing drew support for his nomination from a diverse group of stakeholders, including TCIA. In a letter dated January 27, 2021, TCIA, along with eight other green-industry groups, highlighted “Regan’s reputation for making decisions guided by science that take into account input from all impacted stakeholders,” and urged swift confirmation of his nomination.
Regan’s first steps
Now that he is confirmed, Regan’s initial steps will focus on implementing and enacting the Biden Administration’s climate goals, as well as addressing and responding to President Biden’s Day One Executive Order (EO) 13990, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” The EO, which sets forth the Biden Administration’s policy “to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; and to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides,” instructs the EPA, as well as other federal agencies, to review any regulations and agency actions the Trump Administration implemented that may run counter to the goals of the EO and to “consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the agency actions.” In a fact sheet released the same day as the EO, President Biden highlighted a list of 48 rules and other “agency actions” the EPA should specifically scrutinize – noting the list of rules was “non-exclusive.”
Specifically, the EO instructs the EPA to begin its review “as soon as possible” of two rules finalized at the end of the Trump Administration that changed EPA procedures as they relate to rulemaking pursuant to the Clean Air Act and the EPA’s use of scientific data to inform significant regulatory decisions. The latter of these two rules was quickly axed on February 1 after a United States District Court granted the EPA’s unopposed motion to vacate and remand the rule following a challenge by environmental groups.
While President Biden’s EO will require the EPA to focus on scrutinizing the prior administration’s regulations rolling back Obama-era rules on vehicle fuel efficiency, air-quality standards and water-quality standards, the new administrator also is tasked with reviewing the EPA’s regulation of pesticides under the Trump Administration. Certain actions taken by the prior administration, such as the denial of a petition from environmental groups to ban the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, are specifically targeted for review. The EPA also likely will scrutinize the use of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics) that have been linked with posing ecological risks to pollinators.
TCIA members, many of whom subscribe to the holistic approach of Plant Health Care (PHC), know that sound environmental decisions must be based on science and fact. While understanding the risks associated with neonics, arborists know that in certain instances these products must be used in a targeted manner for specific pests, such as the non-native invasive emerald ash borer (EAB) and hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). Innovative application methods reduce the risk to pollinators while allowing for the preservation of hundreds of thousands of trees annually.
In January 2020, the EPA released its Proposed Interim Registration Review Decision (PID) for a class of neonics – the EPA’s periodic review to ensure the “pesticide can perform its intended function without unreasonable adverse effects on human health or the environment” – to propose several risk-mitigation measures to address the risk posed by current registered uses of neonics. The EPA proposed canceling residential spray applications to turf, reducing maximum application rates or restricting applications during pre-bloom and/or bloom, targeting certain uses with potentially higher pollinator risks, and lowering benefits and promoting voluntary stewardship efforts to encourage employment of best-management practices.
The EPA’s PID provided a 60-day window for the public to comment on the changes the EPA was contemplating. Not surprisingly, the EPA received hundreds of comments from a wide array of stakeholders with differing opinions – from complete opposition to the registration of neonics to absolute support of their safe use – on the best path forward. Currently, the EPA is considering those comments and could be making changes to the proposed decision as a result. Once that consideration is complete, the EPA will issue a final registration-review decision, including an explanation of any changes to the proposed decision and a response to significant comments. While there is no official timeline for this to take place, we anticipate seeing it before the end of 2021.
Basil Thomson is a senior associate with Ulman Public Policy, TCIA’s Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and lobbying partner.
Aiden O’Brien is TCIA’s advocacy and standards manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.