What the Sequester Means for Environmental Regulation

by | Apr 24, 2013

Since President Obama’s reelection, the Administration has made its intention to pursue a robust environmental regulatory agenda well known. With a host of environmental regulations, including GHG emission limitations for new and existing power plants, emissions limitations for hazardous air pollutants from power plants, and rules governing hydraulic fracturing in various stages of development, it appeared as though 2013 would be a year of significant regulatory action by the EPA.

However, on March 1, 2013, across the board federal spending cuts totaling $75 billion went into effect potentially disrupting EPA’s regulatory agenda.  These cuts, called the “sequester,” have left federal agencies scrambling to implement the cuts while still fulfilling their duties.  Nearly every federal agency, including the EPA, is furloughing employees for some length of time.  At the EPA, all employees could be furloughed by as much as thirteen days by the end of 2013.  While these furloughs will be staggered, with approximately 17,000 employees, these furloughs could amount to a loss of 221,000 employee-work days at EPA.

The exact effects of the sequester on federal operations is not entirely clear, and is in many ways a moving target.  However, there are several potential impacts on environmental regulation.  First, there may be a slow down in the finalization of proposed regulations.  Many of the regulations which EPA has issued for comment or is committed to finalize in the near future, such as GHG emission limits for new and existing power plants, are controversial and legally complex and have generated tens and hundreds of thousands of public comments, which must be reviewed and responded to by EPA.  Reduced staff resources at EPA from the sequester may delay the finalization of these regulations.  Furthermore, every rule from a federal agency must be vetted by the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) prior to being finalized.  OMB is also subject to the sequester and has notified its employees that they will have to take ten furlough days this fiscal year.  This adds another level of potential delay to the issuance of any new environmental regulations as EPA has sent a large amount of regulations to OMB that are currently awaiting analysis.  Many of these regulations have already been at OMB for months and the sequester is unlikely to move this process along.  However, not all rulemakings and regulations will, necessarily, be equally impacted.  EPA may choose to focus its resources on finalizing high priority or high profile regulations, such as GHG emission limits for power plants, at the expense of other regulations.

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