EPA likely to see changes under next administration

Reversing Bush administration rules that reshaped regulatory programs and weakened some environmental protections could take years.

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from a National Journal story exploring how much of a difference the next president will be able to make in a number of policy areas.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promises to create a more independent Environmental Protection Agency and to "reinvigorate the EPA, respecting its professionalism and scientific integrity." Essentially, that's a pledge to end Bush's practice of overturning the decisions of the agency's scientists and lawyers on top environmental actions. Obama's long-term environmental plans include revitalizing almost every program handled by the 38-year-old agency.

By contrast, John McCain has said relatively little about the role that EPA would play in his administration. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who is supporting McCain, predicts that the Arizona Republican would appoint strong leaders to head the agency and the Interior Department, which have been plagued by scandals during the Bush administration.

Both McCain and Obama favor controlling greenhouse-gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program. All of the climate-change legislation introduced so far would put EPA in charge of curbing global-warming pollutants, a step that would greatly expand the agency's authority over business and industry.

Obama, who spent two years on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also advocates stricter controls on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and on the pollutants released into the air and water by so-called factory farms. He wants to strengthen the Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup program and focus more attention on pollution problems in low-income communities. And he would restore funding for water-treatment systems.

Although some of those ambitious goals would require help from Congress, the next president will have broad administrative authority to shift EPA's priorities. But overhauling the agency and the nation's environmental policies would be a challenging job.

During the last seven years, the Bush administration issued rules that reshaped EPA's regulatory programs and weakened some environmental protections. To reverse those changes would take years because of the regulatory hurdles that would have to be cleared.

William Ruckelshaus, EPA's first administrator, has said he hopes that Obama wins the White House. Ruckelshaus knows a little about reinvigorating the agency. In the early 1980s, at a time when EPA was mired in scandal and controversy, President Reagan asked him to return to clean up the mess.