A collection of industry and environmental organizations are urging federal and California agencies to extend or postpone public comment deadlines on a variety of complex environmental regulations. Over 100 environmental groups and even the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) called on the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to extend public comment deadlines on pending regulations, arguing that it is inappropriate for an agency to rush through a rulemaking and only give the public 30 days to weigh in on complex environmental proposals. The message from these groups: put a “pin” in regulations that can be easily picked up after the Country has successfully overcome the COVID-19 crisis.
Jared Blumenfeld, Secretary of CalEPA, urged EPA to consider further extensions of the rulemaking process:
The State of California has been a leader in attempting to proactively contain the coronavirus. Governor Newsom declared a State of Emergency on March 4, 2020. Many local jurisdictions in California – including Sacramento, where CalEPA’s headquarters is located – have issued “stay at home” orders. Like other state agencies, CalEPA is working hard to reduce the risk of further contagion while continuing to provide our essential services to the public. But these circumstances do limit the ability of CalEPA to fully comment on a complex US EPA rulemaking in only 30 days.
While industry and environmental groups may tussle over the substance of regulations, we do agree that participation in the rulemaking process is integral to democracy and to creating valid, enforceable, and cost-effective rules that will help California meet its ambitious climate and public health goals, with the Office of Administrative Law calling the public comment process as one “designed to provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to participate in the adoption of regulations by California state agencies.”
Since this would be a temporary pause in the regulatory calendar, there is no question of sidestepping current environmental and health laws. And while we have little doubt that there will continue to be disagreement about the scope, effectiveness, and cost of new rules and regulations we are prepared to set aside our differences and find a way to ensure that meaningful public participation in the creation of regulatory laws is ensured across all agencies, temporarily putting on hold complex regulations that deserve to be fully vetted by the public.
Regardless of one’s position on new policies pending before federal, state, and local agencies, these requests for extensions represent broad agreement that the priority for public agencies and the parties they regulate should be preventing the spread of COVID-19. To the state and federal agencies’ credit-they have granted two- to four-week extensions in a few circumstances. However, as environmental groups and industry have agreed, the pandemic will not have resolved in a few weeks. Indeed, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and many others suggested a public comment deadline of “at least sixty days after the national emergency has been lifted” while others have asked for at least 90 days after. Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-40-20 ensured this was possible at the state level, suspending procedural deadlines that typically apply to the rulemaking process during the pendency of his emergency order and allowing agencies to essentially pick up where they left off.
For now, let’s put these disagreements aside and figure out how to put a temporary hold on pending regulations that are not necessary to prevent immediate harm to public health or ensure the continued provision of essential services until we can be sure that all Californians can be heard, allowing all of us to continue our focus on reducing the impact of COVID-19.
Leah Silverthorn, Policy Advocate