What’s Next for EPA’s Next Generation Compliance Initiative?

Posted on January 5, 2015 by Edward F. McTiernan

If you want a sense of emerging developments likely to impact the business community it is important to keep an eye on pronouncements from EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance (OECA).  OECA is the “lead” for EPA’s Next Gen compliance initiative, which will continue to set enforcement priorities as it rolls out through 2015.  Next Gen is far from perfect and severely underfunded, but since its principles provide the guideposts for compliance policy, being well informed provides an important edge in compliance situations. 

For years EPA has been calling on federal and state enforcement managers to develop approaches that go beyond traditional single facility inspections and enforcement.  EPA took the lead in its FY 2014 National Program Manager’s Guidance OECA by announcing the Next Generation Compliance Initiative.

Next Gen focuses on five areas:

1. Designing and drafting regulations and permits that are simpler and easier to implement.

2. Using advanced emissions/pollutant detection technology so that regulated entities, government, and the public have prompt access to monitoring data concerning environmental conditions (as well as potential violations).

3. Electronic submission of permit applications and monitoring data.

4. Prompt web-posting of traditional compliance data, and presenting information obtained from advanced emission monitoring and electronic reporting (so-called big data sets) to the public.

5. Developing data analytics to guide enforcement activities.

EPA kicked off Next Gen in style.  A major policy statement appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of ELI’s Environmental Forum.  The Next Gen strategy was reaffirmed in OECA’s FY 2015 national program manager’s guidance; in numerous interviews and public statements by senior EPA officials and in a compliance plan announced in October 2014.  These efforts are continuing.  Indeed, George Washington Law School will convene the latest in a series of events focusing on Next Gen compliance on March 26 and 27, 2015.  The symposium will address the role of advanced monitoring in environmental compliance and enforcement.  In addition, OECA staff have presented a number of Next Gen workshops to state officials.

Despite EPA’s roll-out efforts, Next Gen has had critics who find the initiative too vague to be helpful. The Government Accountability Office found that OECA lacks a strategic plan to implement the initiative. In addition, Next Gen does little to reward good behavior.   In fact, Next Gen ignores positive feed-back as a driver of improved compliance.        

While increased use of technology and public disclosure sound great, it remains to be seen how OECA will implement Next Gen in practice. Nevertheless, whether Next Gen has staying power or not, there are several themes that need to be considered:

1.       OECA’s focus on improved transparency and community participation is here to stay and enhanced community outreach will increasingly find its way into EPA (and state) regulations.  To keep pace, the regulated community needs to continuously rethink how to use media (new and old) to inform and engage stakeholders, especially members of vulnerable communities.

2.       EPA and delegated states will continue to experiment with ‘innovative enforcement strategies’ using advanced monitoring and data analytics and that rely less upon traditional inspections; self-reporting and tips.  Industry should look for opportunities to provide input to these efforts.       

3.       Monitoring data is now a public resource, easily shared and routinely subjected to new uses. Therefore, rigorous quality assurance and quality control is essential at every step of the data collection and reporting cycle. Use of software that flags inconsistent results or mathematically impossible outcomes (like EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Tool) should be dramatically expanded.  

4.       E-reporting cannot be a one-way street based simply on replacing paper reports with electronic submissions.  OECA needs to provide guidance and support so that regulators can invest resources and develop policies that ensure that they can use e-reporting to provide relevant compliance assistance in real time. 

We’ll need to wait and see whether OECA’s Next Gen Initiative will play a major role in shaping future environmental enforcement.   In the meantime, OECA’s framework for achieving more effective compliance can serve as a guide for advanced companies to refine their environmental management systems while helping to focus enforcement efforts on the worst performers.