E&E News

Eric Eidsness debates as a congressional candidate in Colorado’s 4th District on Oct. 24, 2006.C-SPAN

Former EPA official urges federalist revamp at agency

Reagan-era EPA official Eric Eidsness wants a new name, new structure and less politics out of his old agency, he wrote in his recently released book.

By:  Alex Hargrave |

GREENWIRE | EPA needs a wholesale revamp to better protect the environment and more adeptly tackle climate change mitigation, according to a new book penned by a former high-ranking agency official.

The more than 750-page manifesto, “Gorilla in the Closet,” makes the case for what author and ex-EPA official Eric Eidsness dubbed “new environmental federalism.” Eidsness was confirmed as EPA’s assistant administrator for water in March 1982 under President Ronald Reagan.

“EPA is a political beast now — it always was, but never to the degree we see now, because the environmental lobby has captured the Democrats, and they never saw an environmental problem they couldn’t solve from the banks of the Potomac River,” he said in an interview. “And Republicans want to deregulate or abolish EPA altogether.”

The Fort Collins, Colo., resident, Vietnam War veteran and former congressional candidate says EPA should be reformed in favor of a less political, more effective agency to ensure environmental protection by working from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

“It needs to change from a political agency who reports to the White House to an independent commission and hire professionals who understand organizational management and accountability who are there long enough to maintain continuity,” Eidsness said.

Eidsness even advocates for a new name: the National Environmental Protection Commission, or NEPC. He says it would function more closely to how the FBI’s leadership operates and would have high-ranking officials serve 10-year terms rather than the current system tied to presidential administrations.

That commission would consist of 11 members, one of whom, the chair, would be a political appointee picked by the sitting president. Others would represent academia, science, business, environmental interests, civil rights, state and local leaders, and other interests, Eidsness said.

“Not of a political party but protecting public health and the environment using the best science and technology we can provide,” he added.

Eidsness also takes issue with EPA’s current organizational system, which consists of specialized program offices based in Washington, D.C., and 10 regional offices run by presidential appointees overseeing states and territories.

Instead, he proposes that each state have an ombudsperson who runs programs and that those leaders be chosen from the Senior Executive Service. Under the plan, each state — with its different industries, demographics, geography and overall priorities — could craft its own approach to environmental protection.

“We have to be concerned about who gets a chance to voice their opinion,” Eidsness said. “At the end of the day, if we don’t engage local people and local governments that have the vast majority of land use and police power over our nation to prepare for the worst effects of climate change and to reduce carbon locally through local codes and ordinances, there’s no way we can succeed.”

He says the book’s title, “Gorilla in the Closet,” refers to EPA’s “ambush mentality” of stepping in when states and local governments fail to act and its role as an enforcer rather than a collaborator or a partner.

In Eidsness’ view, the federal command-and-control regulatory system should be more collaborative so the “gorilla in the closet” can be more effective.

Firsthand experience

Eidsness feels he is well-positioned to criticize EPA bureaucrats because he once was one.

Soon after the agency was formed under the Nixon administration, Eidsness worked for EPA’s water quality predecessor, the Federal Water Quality Administration, as an inspector of municipal sewage treatment facilities.

A decade later, he was confirmed as EPA’s assistant administrator for water during the Ronald Reagan administration, where he served under Administrator Anne Gorsuch from 1981 to 1983.

His EPA era is often defined by the “Sewergate” controversy, when the head of the agency’s solid waste program, Rita Lavelle, was accused of misappropriating funds from the Superfund program.

At that time, Eidsness had policy, budget and management authority over the Clean Water Act; the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972; and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

His signature regulatory reform was implementation of water quality standards that govern how local governments protect rivers, lakes and streams.

That experience and watching the agency’s objectives flip-flop between Washington-centric and decentralized with each change of administration influenced his vision for environmental protection that prioritizes local government’s role, he said.

The Biden administration’s signature legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, despite its good intentions to combat climate change, is an example of a top-down approach, Eidsness said.

“They’re trying to create a demand to do things at local level by creating a huge supply of money, and the consequence of that will be massive fraud and abuse,” he said.

Instead, what Eidsness envisions is “a bottom-up strategy that establishes local, city- and county-administered programs that specifically address reducing carbon emissions and planning for the land use impacts of the worst symptoms of climate change — with the full support of the federal government,” or new environmental federalism, he writes.

“One size fits all is the mantra of the environmental lobby — I’m glad we did that back when I ran water program, that was necessary, but that was 50 years ago,” Eidsness said. “Now we have got to put more focus on bottom-up strategies.”

Looking to the future

How do you implement a bottom-up approach to addressing climate change?

Eidsness says the answer is reducing carbon emissions on the local level through economic incentives.

Unlike grant programs, tax breaks and other measures so far proposed by the Biden administration, they shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. And he cautions that before supplying the money, you need demand.

Eidsness uses heat pump technology as an example. Home heating and cooling systems powered by oil and gas contribute to a lot of the carbon emissions in urban areas, which has led environmental advocates to push the energy-efficient alternative.

To create a “buzz” about heat pumps and get a program to subsidize the technology off the ground, governments will need to engage entities involved — real estate agents who sell houses; bankers who finance them; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning companies that would install the technology.

The same strategy goes for electric vehicles, flood insurance and other climate mitigation tools, he says.

Eidsness’ suggestions come not only from his experience as a policymaker, but from his own hopes for the future.

As a grandfather of five, he says, he fears for his grandchildren’s safety and health as soon as 20 years from now.

“We are failing as a nation today, and that’s becoming more and more obvious,” Eidsness said. “You cannot spend your way out of this problem. You have to change people’s thinking and enlist them in a cause they can support, and the only way to do this is a federalist model.”

Read the original article.

Literary Titan

4.5 Stars from Literary Titan!

In Gorilla In The Closet, author Frederic A Eidsness Jr. dissects and delves into the ins and out of the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a better understanding of the agency and to outline the dramatic restructuring that is needed to reestablish confidence in the agency. The author is deliberate in making this a nonpartisan issue and develops a plan that I think both sides can get behind. Readers will see how both the Democratic and Republican parties want something for the agency that won’t enable it to properly do what it was meant to do.

The author has extensive knowledge of the EPA as he was a critical member of the agency and was involved in the ‘Sewergate’ scandal; which involved the head of the EPA at the time. The author’s expertise is on full display throughout the book and provides significant insight that makes this book both informative and captivating.

There is a lot of information to take in, but readers who follow politics or government policy, even a little, will be able to understand the book. as the author does a great job of explaining things in detail. Those deeply interested in politics will be enthralled with this book as it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at an agency in the midst of a scandal. Frederic Eidsness Jr. also shares a bit of history about the EPA, sharing information about its infancy back in the 70s, well before it became infused with politics.

With any book on politics, I’m always wondering which side of the aisle the author falls on. The great thing about this book is that the author is able to remain nonpartisan throughout, focusing only on what will make the EPA better. I’ve learned that politics has shaped the EPA up to this point, but the author makes it clear that there is a path forward that can make the EPA better; which conveys a feeling of hope.

With the anecdotes, expert opinions, behind-the-scenes look, history and critical analysis of the agency, the author is also giving the reader an understanding as to why the agency needs to be revamped before then delving into details on how to improve it. The guidance is clear, and the path forward is well-defined in this informative book.

With climate change being a prevailing contemporary issue I feel Gorilla In The Closet is very relevant today. This is an enlightening book that provides a blueprint to make significant changes to an important agency at a critical time in history. The author tackles the subject with intelligence and a matter-of-fact tone that is refreshing.

Read the Original Article Here

Patricia J. Rettig, Archivist, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University

Review of The Gorilla in the Closet: A Memoir and Historical Account of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Why It Is Becoming Obsolete, and Its Future after Trump by Frederick A. Eidsness, Jr.

Patricia J. Rettig, Archivist, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University March 7, 2022 (Dec. 31, 2021 pre-publication draft reviewed)

During the early years of the Trump presidency when he and federal lawmakers talked about abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, students on college campuses voiced objection with signs saying, “Save the EPA.” As I, an archivist at Colorado State University focused on western water history, walked past them, I thought about how they likely only had a superficial understanding of the EPA. Indeed, I thought about how that is true for most Americans.

At the time, I knew that Frederick A. “Eric” Eidsness, Jr., EPA Assistant Administrator for Water from March 1982 to May 1983, was writing a book about the organization. (I knew Eric from having his collection of historical documents in my care.) I wished the college students could read Eric’s book and have a deeper understanding of their cause.

Now, after years of work creating a lengthy tome covering his life and work experience, Eric Eidsness provides his lessons for all of us to benefit from in The Gorilla in the Closet.

Eidsness is well qualified by education and experience to enlighten experts and the general public alike about the inner workings of the EPA. He has structured the book in five chronological parts, with the first four telling his story, insights, and opinions, and the fifth looking to the future. The blend of personal memories and work experiences can seem unnecessary at first, but Eidsness’ early influences and the worldview he acquired have bearing on the work he did, so the information about his father, his education, and his service in Vietnam prove to be relevant. Nevertheless, readers who want to get to the policy parts can skip ahead.

Part III, covering Eidsness’ time directing a waste treatment management study for the Larimer-Weld Regional Council of Governments (1975-1978), proves to be a valuable case study of a successful process, even if from decades ago. The details given about approach taken, decisions made, and people involved contribute a needed addition to our knowledge of water management in Colorado. This experience and prior work at a regional EPA office led to Eidsness’ nomination for the higher-level position.

Eidsness’ time as AA for Water was brief but impactful; he was in office during “Sewergate.” The information he shares about how the organization functioned at the tumultuous time is intriguing and baffling at the same time. Readers will easily come to their own conclusion that reform is needed.

Upon approaching the book, readers may be intimidated by its length, and upon skimming it, they may be put off by the abundance of technical details on water pollution policy. Non-experts can choose to struggle through such parts, or scan them to glean the main points. This is not a book readers will want to absorb every word of or even read straight through, yet it proves to be thought

provoking. In the preface, Eidsness assists readers by addressing the redundancy present in the book and referencing the glossary of acronyms, a useful aid in understanding government bureaucracy.

Anyone interested in peering behind the curtain to see how environmental policy works (or doesn’t) should examine this book. College students in various disciplines, from political science to natural resources, will benefit from having parts of the book as assigned reading and discussing them in class. Anyone in or thinking of entering the environmental field, whether within the government or a non- governmental organization, could benefit from this.

College students and concerned citizens alike may care about the environment and therefore assume the EPA is fighting the good fight. EPA-insider Eric Eidsness not only exposes some truths about the organization but suggests how it—and we all—can work toward a better future.