Earth Day Read: EPA announces Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic

As the country came under state stay-at-home orders in the last two weeks of March 2020, American Petroleum Institute executives wrote to Donald Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency, lobbying the administration to waive “non-essential compliance obligations,” such as reporting and monitoring for existing environmental regulations on companies. They claimed that relaxed regulations would allow them to distribute fuel more efficiently during the outbreak. The EPA, under Andrew Wheeler, responded on March 26, 2020, with a temporary suspension of penalties on the noncompliance of “routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification.” This policy went into effect retroactively on March 13 for the nation, with no set end date. The full policy states that companies should “ make every effort to comply with their environmental compliance obligations,” but if not possible, should “act responsibly under the circumstances” and “identify how COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.” Additionally, any data from monitoring within a company will only be made available to the EPA upon request. The policy does not apply to public water and waste management systems. This policy could create challenges for researchers and environmental scientists, who will lack accurate data on any increased point source pollution during the pandemic. If significant environmental damage is done by companies, such as those in the oil and gas industries, it could be difficult to assess the scope of the damage without data. However, ultimately enforcement oversight is often at a state and county level.