EPA enforcer quits with a flourish, joins left-leaning activist group

Published May 1, 2002

A top Environmental Protection Agency enforcement official resigned with a flourish on February 27, joining a left-leaning environmental activist group and blasting the Bush administration on his way out the door.

Eric Schaeffer, a 47-year-old attorney and former director of EPA’s office of regulatory enforcement, had already lined up a job with the Rockefeller Family Fund when he made his public resignation. The Rockefeller Family Fund champions outside-the-mainstream environmental issues and funds a variety of environmental activist groups. The Fund has criticized environmental enforcement as too lax even in the Clinton era.

In a resignation statement distributed to numerous environmental activist groups, Schaeffer criticized the Bush administration for cutting his funding, deterring the plethora of lawsuits he had filed and threatened against American businesses, and considering new rules that would make it easier for businesses to understand and comply with the Clean Air Act.

“I cannot leave without sharing my frustration about the fate of our enforcement actions against power companies,” stated Schaeffer’s resignation letter. “It is no longer possible to pretend that the ongoing debate with the White House and Department of Energy is not effecting our ability to negotiate settlements. … [W]e have filed no new lawsuits against utility companies since this Administration took office.”

Environmental activist groups and their supporters on Capitol Hill took the Schaeffer resignation as an opportunity to criticize the Bush administration and its environmental enforcement policies.

“This letter really strips away the veil and gives the lie to the Bush administration’s claim that it’s working to clean up the air,” said Frank O’Donnell, director of the environmental activist group Clean Air Trust.

Good riddance, say some

Scott Segal, a partner at Bracewell & Patterson, a law firm that frequently addresses utility issues, called Schaeffer “an entrenched bureaucrat” primarily concerned about his and his agency’s federal funding rather than creative Clean Air Act solutions.

Observers have pointed out that Schaeffer’s acceptance of a position with the Rockefeller Family Fund before even leaving EPA speaks volumes of his underlying motives and politics.

Phone calls to the Rockefeller Family Fund regarding Schaeffer’s new responsibilities and his promised salary went unreturned as this story went to press.

In addition to criticizing environmental enforcement even in the Clinton era as too lax, the Fund has prominently criticized the Department of Defense for alleged pollution and has called on the Department to factor environmental issues into its activities. The Fund’s Web site trumpets its funding of “advocacy campaigns in state capitals and Washington, DC” and its “support for coalitions working to pressure Governors and federal agencies to enforce the law against harmful polluters.”

“The Rockefeller Brothers Foundation and Rockefeller Family Fund are among the most radical-left grantmaking entities in the U.S.,” observed Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast. “They do not fund sound science, risk analysis, and market-based solutions to environmental problems. Instead, they seem to specialize in subsidizing groups that rely on scare tactics, exaggeration, and anti-business rhetoric … all the things that have dragged the environmental movement down and to the margins of political debate the past several decades.

“If this is where Mr. Schaeffer’s heart and head are, it is a fine thing indeed that he is out of the EPA.”

Clean Air Act disagreements

Receiving particular attention in Schaeffer’s resignation letter were ongoing discussions within the Bush administration about clarifying rules enforcing the Clean Air Act. Democratic lawmakers and several attorneys general of northeastern states threatened hearings and lawsuits as a blueprint of the final rules began to take shape.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, in addition to imposing stringent clean-air requirements on factories constructed after passage of the Act, requires older plants to install modern anti-pollution equipment when they expand their facilities and create new sources of pollution.

Twenty-eight years after passage of the Act, the Clinton administration began interpreting this “new source” provision more strictly than any previous administration. Most importantly, the Clinton administration began interpreting routine factory maintenance as sufficient activity to trigger companies’ obligation to install expensive new equipment in preexisting plants.

Dan Riedinger, a spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, likened the Clinton interpretation to forcing a car owner who is buying new tires to also buy a new engine. If the same owner bought a new fan belt a week later, and engine technology had advanced during the week, then the owner would have to buy still another new engine as well.

As a result of the Clinton administration’s more stringent interpretation of Clean Air Act rules, companies have been reluctant to perform necessary maintenance in their plants. The decline in routine maintenance has led to decreasing efficiency and greater pollution emanating from current equipment.

The Bush administration proposes to codify exactly what types of activities would be considered mere maintenance and what types would trigger new equipment obligations. Democratic congressmen and northeastern state attorneys general are threatening to initiate congressional hearings and launch federal lawsuits if the Bush rules in any way modify the recently imposed Clinton interpretations.

Replied Joel Maness, an executive with Sunoco, “We’ve been operating under the Clean Air Act for 20-plus years and we thought we were doing everything just right. We’re saying tell us what the speed limit is and we’ll follow it.”

Bill Harnett, an EPA official, agreed. “One of the fundamental problems is that people don’t understand what the rules are. That is something we are focused on, to make sure that the changes would help bring some clarity.”

Schaeffer favors the more stringent Clinton rules, while Spencer Abraham and the Energy Department prefer the pre-Clinton interpretation. White House officials have indicated the new rules would somewhat relax the standards imposed by Clinton, but by how much is still being discussed.

Market approach to Clean Skies

Another focal point of Schaeffer’s displeasure is the Bush administration’s Clean Skies Initiative. The initiative, announced by President Bush on February 14, requires cuts in power plant emissions of what EPA calls “the three worst air pollutants” (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury) by roughly 70 percent. The initiative is designed to improve air quality using a mandatory but market-based approach.

The Clean Skies Initiative will cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 73 percent, from current emissions of 11 million tons to 4.5 million tons in 2010, and 3 million tons in 2018. The initiative will also cut emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 67 percent, from current emissions of 5 million tons to 2.1 million tons in 2008, and to 1.7 million tons in 2018. Finally, the initiative will cut mercury emissions by 69 percent—the first-ever national cap on mercury emissions. Emissions will be cut from current emissions of 48 tons to 26 tons in 2010, and 15 tons in 2018.

The model for the Clean Skies Initiative is the 1990 Clean Air Act, which provided mandatory pollution reductions under a similar cap-and-trade system. The cap-and-trade approach allows businesses that find ways to reduce pollution beyond their pre-set goals to sell their newly created pollution “credits” to other businesses who come up short on their goals.

However, Schaeffer and other environmental activists have expressed a preference for more rigid standards and more legal confrontation to the cooperative approach of the Clean Skies Initiative.