EPA Staffers Are Being Forced to Prioritize Energy Industry’s Wish List, Says Official Who Resigned in Protest

An internal EPA spreadsheet obtained by The Intercept details the energy industry’s wish list for regulatory rollbacks.

Cooling towers from the Limerick Generating Station, a nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, are seen from a nearby neighborhood March 25, 2011. Limerick consists of two boiling water reactors designed by General Electric and is located on the Schuylkill River. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA / AFP PHOTO / STAN HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Cooling towers from a nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pa., are seen from a nearby neighborhood in 2011. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

EPA staffers are spending their days addressing an industry wish list of changes to environmental law, according to Elizabeth Southerland, a former senior agency official who issued a scathing public farewell message when she ended her 30-year career there on Monday.

Southerland, who most recently served as director of science and technology in the EPA’s Office of Water, said that agency staffers were now devoted to regulatory rollback based on the requests from industry. Companies and trade groups have directly asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for some changes. Other requests have come in through public comments in response to executive order 13777, which the White House issued in February. That executive order directed federal agencies including the EPA to suggest regulations to be changed, repealed, or replaced.


Elizabeth Southerland in a family photo.

Photo: Provided by Elizabeth Southerland

The overwhelming majority of the more than 467,000 public responses to the EPA about the executive order urged the agency not to roll back environmental regulations. “I am a PhD chemist, recently retired after more than 35 years of industrial research in material science and chemistry. I am also old enough to remember life before the EPA,” read a typical comment submitted in May. “Do not take us back to those times!”

But Southerland said that a working group headed by EPA Associate Administrator Samantha Dravis and the agency’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson — both of whom were appointed by Scott Pruitt — cherry-picked industry comments calling for rollback and submitted them to scientists and other career employees at the agency.

“They pulled out the ones from the industry — the coal, electric power, oil and natural gas areas, just them — and sent them around and asked us to respond within one day about whether we agreed with the request for a repeal,” said Southerland.

An internal agency spreadsheet obtained by The Intercept supports Southerland’s account of the EPA’s efforts to prioritize the energy industry’s requests. The document appears to be a response of industry and government groups to executive order 13777 and details the desires of organizations representing electric power, natural gas, oil, and coal to revise, amend, withdraw, or otherwise change more than 20 environmental regulations in various ways.

One entry notes that the American Public Power Association asked the EPA to revise the Section 316B Cooling Water Intake Structure Rule. The rule, which was finalized in 2014 after 20 years of scientific work and litigation, requires power companies to minimize the damage to aquatic animals when they intake water to cool engines in their plants. The APPA’s comments, accessible on regulations.gov, describe the rule as “cumbersome” and ask that it be revised.

Another regulation that the document shows the EPA to be reconsidering at the behest of industry is Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which gives states the authority to issue permits for facilities or activities that will impact local water quality. According to the undated spreadsheet, the natural gas and oil industries would be affected.

Agency staffers were also asked to withdraw the 2015 Water Quality Standards Rule, an update of the Clean Water Act that was designed to limit water pollution and protect water quality. The EPA document lists EEI as the source of that request, an apparent reference to the Edison Electric Institute, which submitted public comments in response to the executive order that describe the rule as impinging on states’ “authority to set water quality standards” and ask that it be withdrawn.

EPA Guidance, Regulation or Policy Commenter recommendations Affected Energy Resources Source
2015 Water Quality Standard Rule Withdraw rule because it impinges upon states’ authority to set water quality standards Electric Power EEI
316(b) – Cooling Water Intake Structure Rule (40 CFR Parts 122 and 125) Revise to relieve regulatory permitting uncertainty of provision 125.98 (which requires Fish and Wildlife Service review of 316(b) reports after the studies and even draft permits are completed) Electric Power APPA
Clean Water Act Section (CWA) 401 certifications •Amend to address delays
•Withdraw proposal
Natural Gas, Oil INGGA
Compensatory Migration for Losses of Aquatic Resources Revise rule to reduce inconsistent interpretations Coal NMA
CWA Section 404 Permitting Program •Supports EPA’s formation of National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT) Subcommittee to recommend clarifications to regulations to foster meaningful state assumption of Section 404 permitting authority as allowed under the law
•Review and Streamline Program
•Increase funding to states to manage program
CWA Section 404 and 402 Revise guidance documents to increase state role Coal ECOS
CWA Section 404(c) •Clarify that presumptive and retroactive veto occurs before permitting not after
•Revise interpretation of authority to consider economics and sound science
Coal NMA
Draft Field-Based Methods for Developing Aquatic Life Criteria for Specific Conductivity •Revise draft methodology to relax numeric limits
•Withdraw due to concerns with overly conservative criteria
Coal, Electric Power AEMA, NMA
Drinking Water Standards for Beryllium Revise to reduce burden Coal NMA
Guidance for Aquatic Life Ambient Water Quality Criterion for Selenium in freshwater Reevaluate/revise criterion and implementation guidance to reduce burden Oil, Coal AFPM, NMA
Federal Human Health Criteria Applicable to Washington State Approve reconsideration petition for Partial Disapproval of Washington’s Human Health Water Quality Criteria and Implementation Tools Coal AEMA
Federal Human Health Criteria for Washington State and Maine Rescind and reinstate prior practice of giving states discretion in how they apply fish consumption and exposure criteria Electric Power EEI
Hydrologic Alteration report Revise final report Coal NMA
National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Program •Increase delegation to states
•Streamline process and allow all regions to use general permits to maximum extent
Proposed NPDES Application and Program Updates Rule •Withdraw proposal which would make changes to the state-delegated NPDES program and establish federal veto authority
•Revise proposal
Coal, Electric Power NMA, EEI
Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELG) and Pretreatment Standards for the Oil and Gas Extraction Point Source Category •Rescind to preserve disposal option which may one day prove indispensable
•Undertake thorough review of hydraulic fracturing-related waste water management technologies to determine if economically achievable pretreatment options are available, and consider revisions to ELG rulemaking as appropriate based on the review
•Replace with appropriate pretreatment standards
Oil, Natural Gas DEPA, USCOC
Steam Electric ELG Reconsider and reform rule to reduce burden Electric Power AFPM
Refinery ELGs Retain existing guidelines Oil IPAA
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program Deny environmental petition to change aquifer exemption program Oil IPAA
Unconventional Oil and Gas Extraction Effluent Guidelines Reconsider for onshore unconventional oil and gas publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) Oil IPAA
Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plans (SPCC) •Establish an analytical method and detection limit so that if the concentration of oil is below, then an impoundment holding treated produced water would not be suspect to SPCC requirements
•Do not expand requirements to chemicals beyond oil
Oil Natural Gas
Water Quality Standards Generally •Revise to increase role of states and reduce burden Coal NMA

From an undated internal EPA spreadsheet detailing the requests of organizations representing electric power, natural gas, oil, and coal to roll back environmental regulations.

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Southerland noted that “states would know better whether it impinges on their ability to set quality standards. But no state has asked” that it be withdrawn.

Other rules the EPA is reassessing include drinking water standards for beryllium, which would affect the coal industry, according to the spreadsheet; guidance for selenium levels in freshwater, which would impact oil and coal; the aquifer exemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act; and the National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System, which would affect the oil, coal, and electric power industries.

Although these requests came directly from industry and were delivered to staff by political appointees, Southerland said that EPA career staffers are assessing the requests on their merits. “We said, ‘No, because there’s no new science that would indicate that this report is out of date, there’s no need to change it,’ or, ‘There’s no reason to repeal this rule because there’s no new data,’” said Southerland. “Or, in the case of a regulation, we’d say, ‘We found no flaw in the process or technical basis,’ because that’s the normal way of doing things.”

Many of these EPA employees are scientists like Southerland, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering. “They’re all super technical people,” she said. “They want to finish their careers, and in order to mentally survive this atmosphere, they have to have hope.”

Scott Pruitt began to wage war on environmental regulation as soon as he was appointed in February. Among the more than 30 rules and policies he has targeted for delays or elimination since then are the Clean Power Plan, the methane rule, the Waters of the U.S. rule, and a proposed ban of the pesticide chlorpyrifos.

Southerland clarified that this first round of regulatory rollbacks represents only a fraction of the rules the EPA staff is now being asked to evaluate. “These 30 are just the ones that the oil and gas and pesticide people asked for up front,” said Southerland, who described the companies and industry groups that requested these initial changes as having “their own special deal.”

The full range of proposed rollbacks will become apparent in September, when the EPA and other agencies are required to report back on their assessments of regulation. In the meantime, the staff of the EPA is spending their time considering how to dismantle the policies they have helped create — a process that’s both time consuming and extremely expensive.

“The taxpayers are paying for us to now spend enormous amounts of federal employee hours undoing everything they had spent those same federal employee hours building,” said Southerland. “Look at the enormous treasure that these people are having everyone expend for their ideology.”

Update: August 7, 2017

The article has been updated to include a portion of an internal EPA spreadsheet detailing industry requests to roll back environmental regulations.

Top photo: Cooling towers from a nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pa., are seen from a nearby neighborhood in 2011.

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