If legislation approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday becomes law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget for fiscal year (FY) 2018 could be less austere than the Trump administration’s $5.7 billion request, a request that represents a nearly 30% proposed cut to the agency.
However, the House bill, which the Senate still needs to weigh in on, is no cause for celebration, according to environmental groups and union groups representing federal government employees. They say that the House bill’s $7.8 billion number would be the agency’s lowest level of funding since FY 2001. The House’s funding level, employee reductions that could cut staff to pre-1990 levels, and demoralizing working conditions threaten to hollow out the agency and prevent it from fulfilling its mandate of protecting public health and the environment, the groups said at a 13 September briefing in Washington, D. C.
The House bill, which would fund the EPA at a level 7% lower than the final fiscal year 2017 level, would cut agency science and technology by 12% compared with the administration’s proposed 44% cut in those areas. Additionally, the bill that passed the House on Wednesday targets climate change programs and includes an amendment to bar the enforcement of EPA’s methane rule that sets limits for greenhouse gas emissions for new oil and gas sources. Another amendment bars new rule making from using the Obama administration’s social cost of carbon formula for estimating monetary impacts of climate change from carbon dioxide emissions.
EPA is “grossly underfunded and [has] been grossly underfunded for years,” said John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238, which represents about 9,000 EPA employees nationwide. Council 238 and the broader AFGE, which represents 700,000 government workers, are spearheading Save the U.S. EPA, a national campaign to protect the agency.
O’Grady said that the House’s $7.8 billion level of funding is well below the agency’s FY 2001 budget, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be equivalent to $10.8 billion.
EPA in the Administration’s Crosshairs
“The administration has laid out its priorities, and it has made it crystal clear: EPA is in its crosshairs,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who also spoke at the briefing. Dingell, who serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, introduced legislation in July to prevent EPA from closing any regional or program office, including the agency’s Region 5 office in Chicago, which works on Great Lakes issues. Dingell told Eos that she will try to attach that bill to another piece of legislation. An amendment to the House funding bill that would block the closure or consolidation of any EPA regional office fell short of approval.
The Trump administration is “just blowing up programs that have taken years to create,” Dingell told Eos. “They are decimating an agency that is critical for babies that haven’t been born yet [and for] seniors who are in their 90s and 100s.”
The Art of the Deal
Briefing speaker Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, told Eos that a 7% cut to EPA’s budget doesn’t sound bad. “But this is the classic art of the deal,” he said, referring to a book by President Donald Trump. O’Mara said the cut is not as drastic as the administration requested, but it would still severely affect the agency, and it would come after previous years of incremental reductions.
O’Mara said at the briefing he doesn’t only worry about changes to the agency’s climate and other high-profile programs. “There are bread and butter bipartisan things the agency does day in and day out that are not part of these top line ideological debates about the role of government,” he said. “Less sexy programs” such as cleanup and assessment programs are still on the chopping block, he said.
Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Beyond Coal campaign for the San Francisco–based Sierra Club, said at the briefing that it’s not only budget cuts that threaten EPA’s ability to do its job. “The agency can also be hollowed out by making life miserable for the people who work there, so that they leave, and then just failing to replace them,” she said.
Hitt said she has heard of EPA staff working conditions “that are pretty jaw dropping,” including staff being told not to bring enforcement actions against polluters and being told to rewrite public health safeguards. “Between the budget cuts and this kind of political interference, the EPA just won’t be able to fulfill its mission,” she said.
A Shot Across the Bow
Energy expert Frank Maisano, who observed the briefing, told Eos that the administration’s proposed drastic cut to EPA “was a shot across the bow” to send a message that it planned to reduce government spending.
The administration “can’t reduce government spending in certain areas,” such as entitlements, said Maisano, a principal at the Policy Resolution Group at Bracewell, a Washington, D. C.–based law and government relations firm serving the oil and gas, power, and other industries. “So to get a reasonably balanced budget, they reduced [funding] in all kinds of areas that are never going to be cut by Congress. That’s the way all budgeters are,” he said, noting that, for instance, the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations used similar strategies. “I think you’ll see that Congress is going to be a lot more reasonable than the initial proposal that [the administration] put out.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer