On May 13, 2021, the Office of Inspector General released Resource Constraints, Leadership Decisions, and Workforce Culture Led to a Decline in Federal Enforcement, a comprehensive audit of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s compliance monitoring activities, enforcement actions, and monetary enforcement. Among other items, the audit found a general decline in annual enforcement measures, such as penalty dollars assessed and commitments to clean up pollution, in the 2007-18 time frame. The audit attributed the general decline in enforcement to the agency’s decreased enforcement resources, and to strategic decisions made by the agency, such as the decision to focus limited resources on the most serious cases. The report suggests that USEPA “assess the needs of the Agency’s enforcement program by completing a workforce analysis to determine the level of staffing necessary to achieve and maintain a strong enforcement presence in the field that protects human health and the environment.”
USEPA determines national enforcement priorities on three-year cycles, and “ensuring energy extraction activities comply with environmental laws” was an enforcement priority from 2011 through 2019. USEPA may use the Inspector General report to commit more resources to enforcement activities across-the-board (including in the oil and gas sector), particularly if agency leadership determines that enforcement activities are inadequately staffed or funded. Increased USEPA enforcement activities could also have the effect of reducing the role of state environmental protection agencies in enforcement cases.