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The EPA’s compliance order isn’t a ‘rollback,’ it is a practical solution

Most of my professional career has been dedicated to public service and this has granted me a unique opportunity to witness many different facets of our national, state and local governments.

My experiences as assistant secretary for the Policy, Management and Budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior and as comptroller for the State of Texas, have led me to believe that all governmental and regulatory bodies, regardless of size, must be adaptable. Nothing highlights the need for flexibility like the COVID-19 outbreak 

In the last eight weeks, we’ve witnessed retailers and restaurants shut down, school systems close their doors and the manufacturing and agriculture sectors endure massive disruptions to their operations.  

All industries are grappling with systematic adjustments to their business practices in order to stay profitable and survive, and, most importantly, keep their employees safe. Practical adjustments in the face of a crisis simply make sense. Shouldn’t this same flexibility be available for the industry that is keeping our homes electrified and our cars on the road? 

In late March, after the energy industry requested temporary regulatory relief due to the growing concern regarding the pandemic’s spread, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency was temporarily relaxing environmental inspections and reporting requirements that might conflict with CDC health guidance.

This common sense move is a direct response to the restrictions that have resulted from social distancing and quarantine policies as recommended by countless medical experts and the CDC. True to form, environmental activists immediately jumped on the EPA’s move, declaring it a “rollback” and falsely characterizing the agency’s justification as an attempt to sidestep air and water pollution orders. Former Vice President Al Gore declared it a “shameful abdication of responsibility by the EPA,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called it “absolutely obscene” and that it somehow runs counter to “Americans dealing with a deadly respiratory disease.”

Simultaneously, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others sued the EPA in response to this guidance and 14 state attorneys general asked the EPA to rescind its compliance order. Not only is this biased narrative wrong, it is sensationalizing a crisis to achieve unrelated political objectives. 

These over-the-top reactions are without merit. Now more than ever, Americans deserve an objective presentation of the facts from our leaders, who should acknowledge that the oil and gas industry is facing the same safety dilemmas as other sectors of the economy. The EPA’s guidance directly states that the changes are temporary and purely in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, it would take years of regulatory rulemaking processes and analysis, along with congressional oversight, before any permanent change in reporting regulation could go into effect. 

The activist criticism on environmental merits also runs counter to basic public health recommendations currently followed by most of the country. It is entirely reasonable for the governing body that regulates the oil and gas industry to allow for certain relief to fit the social distancing reality that businesses now face. Energy companies cannot simply “turn off” pollution control with or without reporting, and Wheeler specifically details in his letter that obligations can only be relaxed “in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.”

The American Petroleum Institute has remarked on this inflated controversy by stating that “there may be limited personnel to manage the full scope of some non-essential requirements, but the commitment to safety and sustainability remains unchanged.” Oil and gas employees, who often work long, strenuous hours, deserve the same respect from federal agencies for their health as the workers in any other field.

While it is hard to imagine that those with an ideological agenda will be swayed from their convictions, the public deserves better than politicians using the oil and gas industry as a scapegoat during a time when all industries across America are making sacrifices. Let us hope that businesses continue to follow public health recommendations and support their workers instead of giving in to those with a political bone to pick.

Susan Combs served as assistant secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the Department of the Interior. She previously served as Texas comptroller for public accounts and as the state’s agriculture commissioner.

Tags Al Gore Andrew Wheeler Bernie Sanders climate change activists Coronavirus coronavirus relief COVID-19 environmental restriction rollbacks Environmentalists EPA

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