KC Becker, EPA Region 8 appointee, aims to restore protections dropped under Trump

Stronger regulations for the oil and gas industry, clean air and water and funding shortages should be top priorities for KC Becker as she takes over as administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8, environmental advocates and tribal representatives say.

Not only should Becker, who is the former speaker of the Colorado House, help the federal agency rebuild protections slashed under former President Donald Trump, the advocates say, but she should also push to broaden them further.

In her new position, Becker said she will oversee about 500 employees, help craft and enforce national policies meant to protect the environment and public health. She’ll also dole out millions in federal funding to help clean contaminated areas, improve infrastructure and monitor polluting industries.

Becker’s Region 8 covers Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Three of those states — Colorado, North Dakota and Utah — have some of the fastest-growing populations in the country, census data shows. And the region covers some of the country’s most treasured lands like Arches, Badlands, Glacier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks.

“Yes, there are these amazingly beautiful places,” said Stephanie Kodish, senior director and council for the National Parks Conservation Association.

But there are also some very substantial challenges, Kodish added.

Becker said she’s ready to face those challenges, adding that climate change, environmental justice and degrading infrastructure also sit high on her priority list. Federal officials don’t want to induce “whiplash” but will be taking stronger action than the last administration.

“Progress had not been made in the last four years,” Becker told The Denver Post. “Really I’m focused, and (EPA) Administrator (Michael) Regan is focused, on making real on-the-ground changes that improve air quality, water quality and improve everybody’s quality of life.”

Dan Grossman, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said Becker’s well-suited for the role, especially as President Joe Biden’s administration shifts away from the lax rules and regulations set by Trump’s EPA.

“I’m very grateful we’re under new management,” Grossman, who directs the national environmental nonprofit’s Rocky Mountain office, said. “We’re already seeing a lot of progress.”

Biden appointed Becker, a Democrat, to the role last month. Term-limited, she left the legislature last year and her time in the statehouse was marked by pushing aggressive climate-action policies and a 2019 law overhauling regulations of the state’s oil and gas industry. Democrats and environmentalists lauded the move, though industry leaders accused the lawmakers behind the legislation of operating “in the middle of the night” and warned that it could cripple the state’s economy.

Regulating the oil and gas industry

Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming still serve as home to “booming” oil and gas developments polluting the air, Kodish said. The industry — alongside gas-operated vehicles — is one of the main sources of ozone pollution.

Those pollution levels spiked so high along the Front Range this year that the EPA is likely to downgrade Colorado’s air quality violator status from “serious” to “severe.”

Becker must not only work to tighten regulations on the industry but she also must strengthen enforcement to force violators to lower their emissions, Kodish said.

Colorado Oil & Gas President and CEO Dan Haley has repeatedly urged regulators to pump the brakes on certain regulations — like continuous emission monitoring requirements — and has warned of increased fuel costs and damage to an industry that produces millions of dollars for Colorado’s economy.

“Conversations about complicated technologies and emission reductions need to be steeped in facts, not scare tactics or suppositions,” Haley said in a 2019 news release responding to new regulations from the state’s Air Quality Control Commission.

Haley and other industry officials did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article.

Under the Biden administration, tighter industry regulations are already in the works.

A plan publicized last month by the EPA would require oil and gas companies to more aggressively detect and cut methane emissions. The goal is to cut those emissions by 74% from 2005 levels by 2035.

Once the plan is finalized, individual states will likely be left to draft plans applying the new rules to companies, Grossman said. And Becker will be in a position to act as “validator” to ensure plans in Region 8 states meet federal requirements.

New regulations must also consider that communities of color and those with lower-income residents most often “disproportionately carry the burden of pollution,” Becker said.

“There’s a lot going on in the clean air space,” she added.

Protecting waterways from pollution

Similarly, there’s a lot going on in the clean water space, said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with the environmental nonprofit WildEarth Guardians. And front of mind for many environmentalists is which waterways should be protected.

Trump’s EPA stripped protections from “ephemeral” and intermittent streams, which only flow during storms or certain times of the year, Pelz said. About 68% of Colorado’s waterways fit into that category.

“If all of that water in Colorado isn’t protected and clean, then those pollutants or developments cause problems further downstream too,” Pelz said.

Representatives from the Colorado Farm Bureau praised the move in late 2019. The old regulations, enacted under President Barack Obama, obscured land use rights for the state’s farmers, Colorado Farm Bureau president Don Shawcroft said at the time.

Becker, however, said the Trump administration went “way too far,” and the Biden administration is now working to restore many of those lost protections.

But Pelz said that’s not enough.

“Don’t just restore the protections that existed before,” Pelz said. “Think about the challenges we face going forward and put forth the broadest protections possible.”

As populations continue to grow and climate change dries many of the country’s rivers and streams, clean water will be all the more important in the years to come, Pelz said.

Looking to the future, Colorado Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Chad Vorthmann said in a statement that he hopes Becker and the rest of the EPA will protect the agriculture industry from “unnecessary regulations” and ensure farmers have a say in new policies.

“KC Becker is a tough negotiator but knows how to bring stakeholders together to discuss concerns,” Vorthmann said. “She is knowledgeable about important issues like natural resources and water and we look forward to working with her in her new role.”

Native American tribes and funding

While water supply shrivels across the West, so too is the money allocated to the 28 Native American tribes in Region 8, said Rich Janssen Jr., head of the Natural Resources Department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in northwestern Montana.

“It gets frustrating that year after year funding for the tribes keeps getting cut,” Janssen said.

Each tribe sets its own water and air quality standards, among other protections and uses money from the EPA to pay inspectors and enforce those regulations, Janssen said. And during the Trump administration funding for the Confederated Salish and Kottenai tribes shrank by as much as 25%, he said.

Becker said she’ll lobby for more money for the tribes and already some should be on the way from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in November.

Millions more from the bill will be set aside for the six states in Becker’s region, she said. And her responsibility will be to allocate money to local governments looking to replace lead service lines, replacing diesel school buses with electric ones, soil remediation programs and more.

All told, Becker said her appointment represents a “huge opportunity” for her to put her past experience to use protecting not only the environment but also public health. And the historic spending package, paired with the Biden administration’s environmental goals “are going to have a really measurable impact on people’s everyday lives.”

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