The EPA Wants to Protect Workers. Environmentalists Are Furious

The EPA Wants to Protect Workers. Environmentalists Are Furious
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Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by attacking the Environmental Protection Agency.  The lawmakers took issue with the agency's decision to temporarily waive certain compliance requirements in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Oversight Democrats join a growing number of activists who have accused the EPA of using COVID-19 as an excuse to roll back environmental regulations and enable energy companies to pollute freely.

These accusations miss the mark completely. With most non-essential workers staying at home, energy firms can't meet every federal reporting requirement. The EPA's guidance will allow firms to scale back administrative work without incurring a fine. The policy doesn't change federal environmental standards in the slightest.

The EPA's memo will help energy firms protect workers for the remainder of the outbreak. As with all industries, public officials have required non-essential energy workers to stay home to contain COVID-19. These new restrictions will make it harder for energy firms to perform "routine compliance monitoring" and report results to the government.

Rather than force these firms to choose between paying a hefty fine and putting workers at risk, the EPA has granted them flexibility on these tasks.

That doesn't mean energy firms have a free pass to pollute. The EPA will make exceptions on "a case-by-case basis," and only if the agency determines COVID-19 was at the root of a firm's noncompliance. The agency has also explicitly stated that the guidance "does not say that the COVID-19 pandemic will excuse exceedances of pollutant limitations."

You have to search pretty hard to find a downside to the EPA's memo. Environmentalists were up to the challenge.

Some activists and politicians attacked the EPA within hours of the memo's release. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) lambasted the Trump administration for "using this public health and economic crisis as a cover to roll back environmental laws." One prominent activist called the move "an absolute abdication of the legal responsibilities of the EPA."

Environmentalists are lying to score political points. The memo doesn't lift limitations on pollutants or any other environmental regulation. And even if they wanted to, energy firms couldn't just flip a switch and ramp up pollution on a moment's notice.

These companies have incorporated federal environmental regulations into their standard operating procedures. Violating these rules would require firms to upend their processes and facilitates. Even under the new rules, any company that tried such a thing would face severe penalties.

More importantly, this policy is only temporary. The EPA drafted the memo to protect energy sector employees as they work to keep the lights on during the pandemic. Once we contain the COVID-19 outbreak, the policy will disappear. It's no different than the countless stay-at-home orders, business closures, and distance-learning arrangements implemented over the past few weeks.

The EPA's memo is a reasonable effort to keep workers safe in the face of a global health emergency. It's no surprise that environmentalists refuse to see it that way. They never let the truth stop them from unfairly smearing their political opponents.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, where he concentrates on energy, natural resources, and international relations. He also serves as a senior policy analyst for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and has testified before Congress a number of times.

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