Changes at EPA Pose a New Series of Challenges

The February issue of O’Dwyer’s featured the following article by Peter Stanton on the departure of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The prospect of a new Administrator signals forthcoming changes for Obama’s environmental policies and creates the potential for renewed environmental debates on several intensely controversial issues such as hydraulic fracturing, greenhouse gas emissions, clean water, soot and the expected return of the Keystone Pipeline debate.

The announcement by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson that she will step down prior to President Obama’s second term was not a total surprise. As one of the Obama Administration’s most polarizing figures, Jackson aggressively pressed the President’s environmental agenda, earning the ire of energy producers, manufacturers and other commercial interests as well as some Democrats and state environment departments across the country. Jackson was so effective at pushing the President’s agenda that the Wall Street Journal referred to her as “…his repressed green id.”  She was a leader in the Obama Administration’s first-term efforts to legislate through regulation and as a result enjoyed a great degree of leeway in steering the President’s environmental agenda. Her influence was such that when the President delayed an EPA rule on ozone in 2011, it is said Jackson went ballistic and threatened an ugly public resignation, a move sure to anger environmental advocates just as the campaign was heating up.

While Jackson may have won that round, ruffling the White House’s feathers during a campaign is not a good way to secure a second term as an agency head or cabinet secretary. It is no secret that myriad regulations were put on hold during the campaign. Many believe the pent up tsunami is about to break loose on several intensely controversial issues such as hydraulic fracturing, greenhouse gas emissions, clean water, soot and the expected return of the Keystone Pipeline debate. To pursue these wide ranging and controversial goals, the White House must have confidence its EPA Administrator is a team player and Jackson’s blowup likely undermined that trust.

The Green Lobby surely views President Obama’s re-election as reason to believe they are free to press their priorities even more aggressively. Certainly, a lame duck term gives a president the latitude to open the throttle on the more controversial elements of his agenda. Still, environmentalists are leaving nothing to chance. They have made clear their willingness to use the courts to compel action on issues such as power plant emissions, diesel fuels in hydrofracturing and similar priorities not only to force EPA’s hand, but to amplify its efforts. Whomever the President nominates as Jackson’s successor, the new administrator will find the green groups ready simultaneously to help and threaten. Emboldened as they are by the election outcome, environmental activists are further energized by the EPA’s own success in court rulings that affirmed the agency’s prerogative to declare greenhouse gas emissions a significant public health risk, perhaps Jackson’s most prominent legacy. They expect the agency to wield that authority and are breaking new ground to ensure it happens.

Already, there is evidence of this strategy. The Natural Resources Defense Council threw down the gauntlet by handing the EPA a draft regulation and plan for going after greenhouse gas emissions saying essentially, take it or else. The plan calls for using the Clean Air Act and the powers that law grants the EPA as a means for circumventing Congress where the Republican House surely would take the “ghost-written” draft regulation to task.

As such, industry groups and their agency partners are wasting no time considering how to rebuff these efforts and make their case. The play book will surely include the following:

It’s Still All About Jobs

The energy, chemical, technology and transportation industries face daunting regulations in the new term. While sympathetic congressional leadership in the House will help, challenges from an activist EPA and a president prone to Executive Order policy remain. That said, those industries hold a vital and valuable card. They are investing and creating jobs. The unemployment crisis did not fade away with the election. It’s real. It’s persistent. And the public considers it a priority.

A 2009 study from the University of California found that as unemployment rises, interest in the environment and climate change declines. A few years have passed since the study was issued, but unemployment remains inordinately high and seemingly intractable. Beyond that, it is unlikely any elected official at either the state or federal level will argue against job creation and increased employment opportunities for his or her constituents.

The more a direct correlation can be made between new regulations and a deleterious effect on job growth, the more likely a fair and balanced hearing – if not an outright win – by industry can be achieved. The need is to make employment arguments real and personal. By putting a face on the issue, showing the folks working and being hired in these industries, the arguments become more than a numbers game. Jobs matter, but people count. The industries would do well to humanize their story.

Keep it Simple

The default posture for industry communication on environmental regulatory policy is a discussion of sound science. This remains imperative as no less than the National Academies of Science have taken the EPA to task for failing to provide satisfactory scientific evidence to support certain conclusions.

The challenge, however, is to make those arguments clear in layman’s English. Hard scientific data are often difficult to explain in terms that are both meaningful and compelling to the average consumer. As any PR professional in the business of discussing parts-per-quadrillion knows, the battle is lost if the media and consumers lapse into jargon-induced narcolepsy.

When we talk instead about risk, we have a greater opportunity to put complex information into context for consumers bombarded with technical information. Americans are pragmatic. They want to do what is best for themselves, their families and the environment, but they also strive to be reasonable. It is the rare consumer that goes through the pantry tossing all canned food and beverage products because of a vague suspicion about the purported effects of bisphenol-A. They may opt instead to reduce the potential for consumption by the infant in the family, but still enjoy a cold can of Budweiser at Sunday’s tailgate party.

Put risk into meaningful perspective and consumers will thank us for helping them cut through the hype and paranoia.

There is Power in the States

Jackson turned the EPA into a formidable force on regulatory policy. She fought tenaciously on key issues and won legal battles the agency and green lobby view as authority to do even more. The next wave is certain to impact the states where environmental policy is still influenced by local concerns and economic priorities. Administrator Jackson was known for her adherence to the concept of federal superiority over state environmental issues. The new administrator no doubt will be measured by activist groups on his or her willingness to maintain that posture.

A key example is hydrofracturing for natural gas extraction. In states such as Pennsylvania, endorsement of this technology has led to a jobs and economic boom. Much the same is occurring in Ohio where long dormant manufacturing towns are coming back to life on the strength of this new activity. These and other states have drawn a clear line in the sand against federal interference in local matters. Pennsylvania’s DEP Secretary Michale Krancer, an outspoken advocate for state control, has been successful in creating a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the Pennsylvania congressional delegation opposed to EPA overreach in the fracking debate. He is not alone. Others are unlikely to take lightly any attempt by the EPA to curtail hydrofracturing through regulatory fiat. They must and will bring pressure to bear on their representatives in Congress to challenge the EPA should the agency attempt to impose onerous restrictions on drilling.

If the Green Lobby has proven anything, it has shown it can turn people out to express support for restrictive policies. This was on full display during the Keystone pipeline debate in which Jackson, at minimum, won a stay during the election. The next round will be even more contentious. Industry groups will need to play by the same set of rules and bring out the ground troops that can give congressional delegations and state leadership essential cover to push back against what they characterize as EPA overreach.

The Jackson departure signals nothing if not a moment when both sides of environmental policy debates are measuring the challenges ahead and preparing their plans. For industry communicators and their agency partners, the tsunami can be countered with sound strategy. Such strategy must be framed in terms that resonate with an American public genuinely concerned about protecting the environment, but equally concerned about their economic well being. Now more than ever, there seems to be an opportunity to balance those concerns in practical real-world terms.

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