Politics and Environment: How D.C. Works

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It can take a simple act like sorting your recyclables out of your trash to personally become a better steward to the environment; it can take years for the government to encourage the country as a whole do the same.

While many environmentalists lament the lethargic manner in which the government seems to pursue sweeping policy changes like a comprehensive climate change bill, the fact is that thousands of government employees at dozens of agencies and offices across the federal government have to weigh in before a new policy can become law.

The process usually begins when an independent federal agency, like the EPA or NOAA, produces research indicating an environmental risk or need. A department within the executive branch, such as CEQ or OECC, will devise a new policy to address the risk or need identified, and advise the President on its necessity.

Once the President gives the go-ahead, people within his administration begin lobbying members of Congress to propose legislation adopting the policy (unless an enterprising member of Congress has already taken the initiative to propose legislation without the President’s urging).

Confused yet? Thought so. Ease your bewilderment with this rundown of the key federal bodies that play a role in crafting America’s environmental policies.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Administrator: Lisa Jackson
Affiliation: Independent agency
Founded: Dec. 2, 1970

What it does: The EPA’s primary objective is to enforce federal laws relating to the environment. In order to do that, the EPA creates national standards and ensures that those standards are reached. While the EPA is a federal agency, it has ten regional offices around the country, and numerous research labs. Nearly half of the EPA’s budget is devoted to grants for state and local environmental projects.

What it’s done: The EPA began requiring permits for industries emitting large amounts of greenhouse gasses in January 2011, regulating carbon emissions under the authority of the Clean Air Act; the EPA revoked a mountain-top mining permit in West Virginia, asserting that the waste disposal would harm the environment of the surrounding area.

White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)

Chair: Nancy Sutley
Affiliation: Executive Office of the President
Founded: Jan. 1, 1970

What it does: As a division within the Executive Office of the President, CEQ’s primary objective is to advise the President on matters relating to environmental policy. While CEQ lacks the enforcement authority of the EPA, it plays an instrumental role in the creation of environmental policy through Executive Orders. Additionally, CEQ is often in charge of coordinating efforts across the executive branch to ensure the President’s environmental agenda is being achieved.

What it’s done: CEQ helped write the “Executive Order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance,” which set higher standards for energy efficiency in government agencies; CEQ authored a report on Recovery through Retrofit, a program designed to help pay for energy-saving improvements to American homes.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Administrator: Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Affiliation: Department of Commerce
Founded: Oct. 3, 1970

What it does: NOAA’s chief role is to educate the public on matters relating to the environment, particularly regarding weather and ecosystems. In recent years, NOAA has taken an expanded role in predicting and adapting to the impacts of climate change. It also helps regulate usage of America’s coastal regions.

What it’s done: NOAA determined which areas of the Gulf of Mexico would be closed to fishing in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; NOAA is the home of the National Weather Service, which makes official forecasts and warnings across America.

Department of Energy (DOE)

Secretary: Steven Chu
Affiliation: Cabinet
Founded: Oct. 1, 1977

What it does: DOE is the primary regulator of America’s energy production, both establishing and enforcing those regulations. DOE conducts research and allocates grant money to research projects in the energy industry. It also works with other government agencies to devise new policies designed to help ensure America’s energy security and independence.

What it’s done: DOE officials coordinated with Russia’s energy department to safely shut down old Soviet nuclear reactors; DOE levied a $230,000 fine on companies distributing an air conditioner unit found to violate energy efficiency standards.

White House Office on Energy and Climate Change Policy (OECC)

Director: Carol Browner
Affiliation: White House
Founded: Jan. 20, 2009

What it does: Created for President Obama’s administration, the small OECC is charged with advising the President on issues specifically related to energy and climate change. While it holds no regulatory authority (and its director is not subject to congressional approval), the OECC still plays a key role in coordinating efforts within the executive branch to advance the President’s energy and climate change agenda.

What it’s done: OECC officials helped negotiate the administration’s new emissions standards; OECC director Carol Browner regularly lobbied members of Congress to pass a comprehensive climate change bill.

Other key players

  • Coast Guard: Helps enforce environmental policy, especially concerning water pollution and fishing restrictions, around America’s coasts.
  • Department of the Interior: Chiefly responsible for protection of America’s natural resources and endangered species.
  • Interagency task forces: Bodies comprised of members of several of the above agencies working together to develop a specific policy initiative (such as the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force).

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