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Five ways the EPA can get its mojo back under the Biden Administration

President-elect Joe Biden in Atlanta on Dec. 15,

President-elect Joe Biden in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 2020. Biden has selected Michael Regan, secretary of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Michael Regan, secretary of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. If confirmed, Regan will have a distinctly challenging assignment.

The reasons are threefold. The Donald Trump administration has scaled back so many environmental regulations; the agency has been demoralized; and Biden has an exceedingly ambitious environmental agenda. Regan will need to establish priorities for his first months.

Here are five concrete ideas, the first three of which involve climate change, on which Biden himself is focusing:

1. Greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles

Transportation accounts for about 28% of greenhouse gases in the U.S., and from 1990 to 2018, emissions from transportation have grown significantly.

President Barack Obama imposed aggressive regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from both light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles; Trump scaled them way back. Biden promises to issue "a new fuel economy standard that goes beyond what the Obama-Biden Administration put in place."

To do that, the EPA will have to coordinate closely with the Department of Transportation, which has authority to issue fuel economy rules. It will have to comply with the Clean Air Act, which calls for standards that "reflect the greatest degree of emission reduction achievable," considering technological feasibility, costs of compliance and necessary lead time.

The EPA will also have to explore some challenging technical questions.

How much flexibility can the agency give to the automobile industry, to allow it to find the most efficient way to meet greenhouse gas emissions goals? In the next decade, what kind of cars will it be feasible to make and sell? Are more fuel-efficient cars less safe (as the Trump administration believes)?

Aside from reducing emissions, will fuel economy standards also benefit consumers, who can save money at the pump? And if consumers really would benefit from more fuel-efficient cars, why aren't they buying them anyway?

Regan, and those who work for him, will have to produce good answers to these questions, not only because people deserve them, but also because they are likely to arise in the inevitable legal challenge to new regulations.

2. Social cost of carbon

Within the executive branch, the linchpin of national climate policy is "the social cost of carbon," a number that is meant to capture the damage of a ton of carbon emissions. The social cost of carbon helps to determine the stringency of all kinds of regulations, including energy efficiency regulations, motor vehicle regulations, and regulations on power plants.

Under Obama, the social cost of carbon was about $50; under Trump, it ranges from $1 to $7. The Biden administration will want to come up with its own number. While the White House is likely to oversee the process, the EPA will play a central role in handling this complex issue.

3. A green power plan

The Obama administration finalized an ambitious Clean Power Plan — which got tied up in litigation. The Trump administration repealed it, and came up with its own tepid plan — a kind of Dirtier Power Plan — which is also tied up in litigation.

To control greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources, above all power plants, Regan and his EPA will have to go back to the drawing board, informed by Obama's plan and the subsequent litigation. Here again, compliance with any regulations must be "achievable," considering cost, and the Clean Air Act imposes an assortment of other constraints on the EPA's discretion — which means that there is a minefield to navigate here.

4. Particulate matter

One of the EPA's principal missions is to promote public health, and air pollution is a significant cause of premature deaths and illnesses. Of the major air pollutants, the worst is probably particulate matter. By one calculation, increases in concentrations of particulate matter in the ambient air caused nearly 10,000 deaths in 2018.

The health risks associated with particulate matter are particularly concentrated in poor communities, and they are faced disproportionately by people of color. Biden has indicated that he will make "environmental justice" a priority (more on that shortly) — which adds to the argument for addressing particulate matter.

Regan should consider two initiatives. The first is to announce, and to undertake, more aggressive enforcement action against those who violate existing standards. The second is to consider tightening existing standards for particulate matter, as the science seems to support.

5. Environmental justice

Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the EPA has been required to analyze the costs and benefits of its regulations, and to proceed only if the benefits justify the costs (unless some provision of law requires it to act even if they don't). Despite the difficulty of quantifying the benefits of environmental protection, that's an excellent idea, because it focuses the agency's attention on the real-world consequences of what it does.

But there are other excellent ideas out there, and they need to be taken into account. More than any previous president, Biden has put the topic of environmental justice front and center. He promises to target "polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities."

A lot of people in poor communities are breathing dirty air and drinking dirty water. The EPA needs to fix that. Regan might want to issue a directive to that effect shortly after he assumes office, if only to give a clear signal that issues of racial justice and issues of environmental quality are related, and will be treated as such.

Regan will have an immense task in restoring the EPA's morale, above all by demonstrating that he prizes and respects science, economics, expertise, and the dedication and competence of the agency's extraordinary staff. The best way to do that is by making progress on concrete issues — and with alacrity.

Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "Too Much Information" and a co-author of "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness."