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President Donald Trump sent out his budget blueprint to federal agencies Feb. 27, seeking to slash the budget for the EPA and other agencies while boosting defense spending by $54 billion.
With a baseline for the next fiscal year in hand—pending approval from Congress, which authorizes and appropriates funds to federal agencies—EPA leaders will have to ask themselves a difficult question: what will be the first programs to go? Chemical industry groups are hoping the incoming administration will saves its key programs at the Environmental Protection Agency that are essential to keep their businesses moving.
The pesticide industry, which depends on the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention to put its products on the market, has been particularly active in telling the White House’s advisers not to blindly take a hatchet to the agency’s budget.
“This administration has made no big secret about cutting the EPA,” Ed Ruckert, an attorney in the Washington office of McDermott, Will and Emery who represents several agricultural and pest control organizations, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think you’re going to see industry say ‘this is an organization that needs to be maintained and strengthened’.”
Many industries—from the power plant sector to construction, to water utilities—depend on the EPA to issue the permits necessary to legally operate their businesses. Slowdowns or halts in permitting could constrain operations.
But pesticide manufacturers that make crop insecticides, household disinfectants and other such chemicals are unique because they pay fees to the Office of Pesticide Programs to ensure that work gets done. Congress is poised to reauthorize a bill later this year that would renew the business’s commitment to paying dues in exchange for certainty about the approvals they legally need to stay in business.
Under the latest iteration, the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act ( H.R. 1029) will allow the EPA to raise up to $31 million—an increase from $27.8 million—to maintain the registrations of existing pesticides. At the same time, congressional appropriations since fiscal year 2010 have dropped from about $143 million per year to about $120 million. Congress has sidestepped this obligation by issuing waivers that allow the industry fees to fund pesticide licensing despite the low appropriations.
The PRIA Coalition—headed by agricultural pesticide association CropLife America and consumer trade group, the Consumer Specialty Products Association—have met with the EPA and with lawmakers to press their case to preserve the program.
Doug Ericksen, spokesman for the transition team at the EPA, did not respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment on the agency’s budget.
The agency’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, made his name fighting the Obama administration in court over high-profile regulations on climate change and water. E-mails released to the public last week by the Center for Media and Democracy show that Pruitt worked closely with the oil and gas industry on policy issues as he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. Backers of the agency under President Barack Obama fear that Pruitt will put a target on the agency’s climate change work, undoing much of the effort his predecessors Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy put forward.
The clampdown on the agency comes after a steady decline in the budget over the last seven years. The EPA’s spending allowance has declined from $10.3 billion in fiscal year 2010 to $8.1 billion in fiscal year 2016.
Former agency officials are decrying the impact of the expected cuts.
Staff already has grappled with smaller conference travel budgets, cuts in discretionary expenses, and less contractor support to assist with reducing environmental and health risks, said Jim Aidala, former EPA assistant administrator under President Bill Clinton and now a senior government affairs consultant with Bergeson and Campbell, P.C.
“The agency is really operating on a bare bones budget,” Mathy Stanislaus, the former head of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, told Bloomberg BNA. Stanislaus was a presidential appointee in the Obama administration.
The EPA is already operating at a “life support level,” said Tracey Woodruff, a former scientist in the Office of Policy under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
“It’s going to have really drastic implications for EPA’s ability to enforce environmental regulations,” Woodruff, now director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco, told Bloomberg BNA.
Myron Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former environmental adviser to Trump, said earlier this year that the administration could cut the agency’s staff levels by two-thirds.
“Good luck with that,” Aidala told Bloomberg BNA, responding to the possibility of such a drastic cut. “It would be very tough to do it.”
But offices like the pesticides division—and the air and water offices that have drawn fire for recent regulatory proposals—won’t be the first to feel a belt-tightening said Daniella Taveau, a former trade negotiator for the EPA.
Non-mandatory voluntary programs could be the first to get cut or moved to the private sector, said Taveau, who now works as a regulatory and global trade specialist for King & Spalding LLP in Washington. The best known example of these is the EnergyStar program, which certifies energy-efficient appliances.
“We should expect a leaner organization, focused on the core mission of EPA,” she told Bloomberg BNA. That means cutting some programs, but also reinvesting in information technology, communications and scientific research, she said.
Taveau and others expect some former George W. Bush appointees to return to the agency. Changes in leadership at the regional level, often the first and ablest responders to local environmental crises, may also be afoot.
But Taveau thinks the cuts offer the EPA a chance to improve management and create a more efficient agency, allowing the EPA to emerge as a regulatory model for the world.
If Pruitt is able to cut some of the perceived excess, said Taveau, “I think he could be a hero.”
—With assistance from Sylvia Carignan in Washington.
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