Budget Calls for 30-Year Low in EPA Staff Levels

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By Brian Dabbs

EPA staffing would plummet to its lowest levels since the mid-1980s, according to the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget.

The administration called for a 11,611-staff level at the Environmental Protection Agency in fiscal year 2018. That would mark a reduction of more than 3,000 employees, or roughly one-fifth of the current level. In 1984, EPA had 11,420 employees.

The EPA said the budget request’s staff level and overall $2.6 billion budget reduction “supports the agency’s return to a focus on core statutory work.” But the document is expected to meet significant resistance on Capitol Hill.

Shortly after its release, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the second-highest ranking Republican in the chamber, predicted the budget request will undergo change. And the top Republican appropriator for the EPA also said lawmakers will exercise their power of the purse.

“I will work to provide our agencies with the resources necessary to fulfill their missions while also finding efficiencies to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used judiciously,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who chairs House Appropriations’ Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies’ Subcommittee.

Targeted Cuts

The staffing cuts are linked to programs slated for elimination, with the administration putting climate initiatives firmly in its crosshairs.

The proposed budget would ax the agency’s Global Change Research program, which supports climate change mitigation efforts. That would put nearly 50 employees on the chopping block.

Greenhouse Gas Reporting voluntary programs are also targeted for elimination. The budget blueprint doesn't specify the amount of accompanying staff cuts, but an earlier version said that about 225 staff positions would be eliminated. Those programs include Energy Star, Center for Corporate Climate Leadership, Coalbed Methane Outreach Program, Green Power Partnership and an array of others.

Some critics of the EPA applauded the aggressive stance.

“I see the first EPA budget as a good start. I think there’s clearly a lot of excess spending and high employment levels at EPA that aren’t needed,” Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg BNA. "[President Donald Trump] wants to cut regulatory jobs that are not needed. The environment will be just fine if the EPA is getting leaner and strictly [does] things that Congress mandates.”

Ebell led Trump’s EPA transition team. He and other EPA critics accused the agency of regulatory overreach under President Barack Obama.

Staff Cuts ‘Make Sense’

Both on the campaign trail and since Election Day, Trump has vowed to scale back the EPA.

The called-for cuts to programs would necessarily induce wide-ranging staff cuts, Ed Krenik, a Bracewell LLP attorney and former EPA congressional liaison in the George W. Bush administration, told Bloomberg BNA.

“If the staff reductions correlate with where they’re eliminating programs, it kind of makes sense. If the programs don’t exist, you don’t need the people to run them,” he said. “They obviously sent the signal that the budget was going to be reduced.”

The proposed budget calls for roughly 50 staff cuts as part of environmental justice and minority business promotion programs, about 125 staff cuts to Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes programs, and more than 70 staff cuts tied to lead risk reduction efforts.

During the agency’s last years in which it functioned at similar staff levels, it had a far smaller statutory portfolio, meaning the agency issued fewer regulations. Still, the agency operated then on a roughly $4 billion budget.

On the Heels of Cuts

Authorization for agency staff has already decreased by nearly 3,000 employees over the past 20 years, and many EPA supporters say the agency can’t handle additional downsizing.

“We’re at bare-bone staffing levels already,” John O’Grady, an EPA employee and union representative based in Chicago, told Bloomberg BNA. “This would bring us to a point where we would have to close regional offices and laboratory facilities.”

Current and former EPA officials have told Bloomberg BNA the agency is exploring the possibility of closing regional offices.

O’Grady said the threat of cuts could encourage EPA employees to take the agency up on a buyout proposal in the works. The agency aims to spend $12 million over the remaining four months of fiscal year 2017 on early retirement and lump-sum departure offerings, which would likely lead to a 400-to 500-employee reduction in staff levels.

Congress will have to authorize additional cuts, however. As part of the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill, lawmakers prohibited EPA from outright staff cuts. That process is likely to be contentious.

Budget lawmakers and leadership will first have to identify top-line budget numbers before the appropriations committees flesh out a specific allocation for EPA and other agencies, Krenik said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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