Biden’s climate win strains already stretched EPA workforce (1)

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The expected passage of the Inflation Reduction Act will strain an EPA workforce that is already under pressure to carry out the mandates of last November’s infrastructure bill. , observers said on Monday.

The added workload raises questions about the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to cope without quickly hiring many more employees, according to Stan Meiburg, a former acting deputy administrator at the EPA.

“All of this activity is creating more demands on an agency that is struggling to get enough budget to carry out its previous functions before it even happens,” said Meiburg, now the Center for Energy’s executive director, Environment and Sustainability from Wake Forest University.

Many other federal agencies are “seeking to increase hiring simultaneously to meet the demands of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, and that will only add to that talent pool,” agreed John Miller, a former branch chief at the bureau. of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and now director. at the Washington Research Group of Cowen Inc.

Under the climate provisions of the bill (HR 5376) that the Senate passed on Sunday, billions of dollars in new funds would flow to the EPA to work on many fronts, including a methane emissions reduction program from the natural gas sector, an effort to deploy zero-emissions technology, a program to reduce air pollution in facilities like ports, and community investments in environmental justice.

Static staff

EPA staffing levels have been essentially static since President Joe Biden took office. The agency reported 14,581 employees in fiscal year 2022, nearly 20% below the EPA’s peak under the Clinton administration.

Some 1,000 employees left the EPA under the Trump administration, with many more expected to retire in the coming years.

The agency’s biggest needs are likely for technical staff on air emissions and fuels to help set parameters for new tax credits and issue grants for emissions monitoring and reduction programs, said Miller.

Other areas of need will include climate change scientists and environmental engineers at the regional level, as well as grants specialists to help communities apply for grants and review submissions, said Jacob Carter, director of research at the Center. for Science and Democracy from the Union of Concerned Scientists. and a former EPA postdoctoral researcher.

Marie Owens Powell, president of Council 238 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents EPA employees, said the “monumental” amount of new work that is expected to come to the EPA “will require an even more knowledgeable and experienced EPA workforce.” than ever before.”

Last year’s infrastructure act dumped billions of project dollars on the agency. They included the development of a clean school bus program, a plan to modernize water and sewer infrastructure across the country, and an effort to help water utilities deal with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances ( PFAS).

In the meantime, the EPA has yet to produce new volume rules for the Renewable Fuels Standard by the end of the year and has committed to adopting multi-part rules for clean trucks, clean power plants and light-duty vehicle emissions in 2023, Miller observed.

Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704 and an attorney for the EPA in Chicago, said agency employees feel “besieged” by the volume of work they already have to take on, but also “so grateful that it’s done”.

Action to increase ranks

Three important players — EPA senior management, the agency’s largest union, and Congress — have all worked to increase membership.

Within the agency, EPA Administrator Michael Regan has implemented a retention plan. Separately, Regan senior adviser Zealan Hoover told Bloomberg Law in January that the agency is giving its hiring managers more support to hire people through non-competitive processes. Competitive hiring requires applicants to go through a lengthy testing and review process.

AFGE has also repeatedly asked for more help. In its ongoing contract negotiations with the agency, the union is asking for a more generous career ladder to help employees advance professionally and resist other job offers.

“I’m super worried about this,” Cantello said, noting that several staff members are being forced out because they’re maximizing their careers at EPA.

The union’s opening bargaining proposal calls for the creation of an upward mobility program that provides “pathways for employees to seize opportunities and enable successful cross-growth opportunities such as those offered by career ladder positions” .

Powell on Monday called on the EPA to “move quickly to get the right people in place” to implement the climate bill, and to “provide them with the support and working conditions they need to accomplish the critical task ahead of them”.

Congress Direction

In Congress, a fiscal year 2023 spending bill introduced by Senate Democrats in July would increase the agency’s budget by 11.3%. As part of the measure, the Senate Appropriations Committee called on the EPA to “prioritize efforts to streamline hiring, support retention, and manage the erosion of expertise resulting from severance.” executive retirement”.

But federal hiring is still a slow and tedious process. The EPA must also compete with the private sector for highly qualified people in specialized roles, such as chemical engineers, hydrologists and financial experts, Meiburg said.

In some cases, the claims probably won’t be too onerous because the money will go into existing EPA programs, Carter said. For example, the bill provides more funding for greenhouse gas emissions reporting and reduction programs, which the agency already has in place.

The climate bill also sends a signal to people in the workforce that will help attract more talented people to the field, Meiburg said.

“People are excited, young people,” he said. “There is obviously a lot of interest. People see it as a moment in time.

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