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  • Writer's pictureJim Mahannah

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Will Our Environment Ever Get Greater Billing than Our Economy?

Depending on which side of the environmental fence you find yourself standing, the initial news emanating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) March 26 2020, was either a massive disappointment or welcome news. I find what I’ve heard particularly disturbing – I expect the outcomes will only add to my anger and frustration.

Amid bleak headlines trumpeting the ugliness COVID-19 was wreaking upon the American economy, the EPA announced that it would temporarily relax its enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the outbreak. The policy change would be retroactive to March 13 2020, and ominously sets no end date.

Say what?

Not surprisingly, American Petroleum Institute (API) lobbying efforts figured prominently in the EPA’s decision. API executives requested protection from nonessential compliance obligations that include record-keeping, training and other non-safety issues.

The logic of the API’s lobby goes something like this – the market tasks the oil and gas industry to distribute fuel efficiently while maintaining safe and reliable operations. The COVID-19 pandemic forces companies to face potential work shortages, travel restrictions and social distancing restrictions, stretching and stressing them as it is; having to manage the full scope of requirements mandated by regulatory bodies is asking too much.

So, what’s changing?

For one, the EPA is delaying requirements to report greenhouse gas emissions. They will be more flexible in what companies must do to monitor sampling and analysis for drinking water permits. Some forms of pollution monitoring can be deferred or delayed. Companies affected can also suspend monitoring and postpone reporting the detection and repair of certain types of leaks.

The EPA’s stated position in all this sounds rather banal: “In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.”

Hmmm – sounds to me more likely the implications will deliver a solid gut punch to the environment. Forgive my cynicism; I find it difficult to trust companies to forego quick cost reductions and easy profits in favour of doing right by our suffering ecosystems.

Critics are concerned that pollution issues will not only increase, but there’s no way to assess the environmental damage that will be inflicted entirely. Cynthia Giles, once heading the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, stated the new policy “tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws – so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ‘caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA during the Obama administration and presently serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, chimed in to say this latest move effectively became “an open license to pollute.”

Defenders like EPA spokeswoman Andrea Woods have a different take on the modified EPA policies. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”

I find it mildly consoling that this enforcement discretion applies only to the EPA as a federal agency. Authorized states and tribal bodies may take different approaches under their mandate. Let’s hope they demonstrate more vision.

Many argue that the EPA’s announcement is loosely written, lacks certainty, and may set precedents that further relax regulations intended to protect the environment. Additionally, the policies place more onus on the private sector to adhere to environmental regulations – and that’s what has me shudder. Where the bottom line is concerned, can we trust all private companies to ignore economics in favour of ecosystems?

Likely not, if human nature and history teach us anything.

It seems just a tad too convenient to use COVID-19 as the excuse to relax oversight. Justified or not, piling on additional stress to our fragile ecosystems in the face of a dire need to treat nature with more care flies in the face of everything we know about environmental degradation.

The storyline remains mostly unchanged – where the economy is concerned, our ecosystem is David without the slingshot. Short-term gains trump the longer-term pain we, our children and our grandchildren, will have to endure.

I’ll leave you with this question - when the panic around our embattled environment reaches COVID levels, will that be the time we finally come to appreciate the folly of our decisions?


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