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By Brian Dabbs
A White House budget blueprint designed to severely downsize the Environmental Protection Agency faces a rocky path forward in the six months before the start of fiscal year 2018.
While its passage as part of the actual federal budget is anything but certain, President Donald Trump’s roughly 30 percent proposed cut to the EPA announced March 16 immediately sowed discord across the policy community.
Democrats and environmental groups said the plan would gut bedrock environmental protections. Many conservatives expressed glee that Trump was following through on pledges to scale back federal regulations.
No other agency would lose a larger percentage of current funding than the EPA under Trump’s plan, according to the figures outlined in the budget. The proposal would slash more than 50 EPA programs, reduce $2.4 billion in funding to a total of $5.7 billion for the agency and cull 3,200 jobs. The document doesn’t specify most of the programs targeted for elimination.
Prior to his November election victory, Trump vowed to dismantle the EPA, calling the agency the “laughingstock of the world” and labeling climate change a Chinese hoax.
He also promised to revive coal production and related employment, and to liberalize domestic energy development.
“I’m not sure there’s any way to mistake the message. You don’t propose to cut something by 28 to 32 percent because you think it’s great,” Kevin Book, head of research at ClearView Energy Partners, told Bloomberg BNA. “This one doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance. But the practical side of that is lawmakers will look at that, and a lot of programs that operate in their states or districts would be affected.”
Trump’s proposal also calls for a 30 percent cut to the superfund program, eliminating $100 million annually in climate change programs, and scrapping both the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay program.
Trump’s budget blueprint “marks a stark contrast from the reckless spending of the past administrations,” the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research organization, said in a statement.
“The proposed cuts to non-defense programs, together with executive actions to streamline federal agencies and cut waste, signal that this administration is serious about cutting the bloated Washington bureaucracy down to size,” the Heritage Foundation said.
Trump would raise defense spending by more than $50 billion, while also increasing spending for the Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security departments.
The Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), a nonpartisan group of state and territorial environmental officials, lashed out against the budget proposal, arguing a nearly 45 percent cut to state grants as Trump proposed would devastate state capacity to meet existing standards.
“Language in the president’s budget blueprint that ‘EPA would primarily support States and Tribes in their important role protecting air, land, and water in the 21st Century’ is wholly inconsistent with the Categorical Grant cuts,” said ECOS Executive Director Alexandra Dunn in a statement. ”States operate 96 percent of federally delegated and authorized environmental programs and manage funds to implement environmental regulations and are an important link to the local regulated community and local governments.”
The proposal, however, would boost State Revolving Funds, which help facilitate investment in water infrastructure projects, currently funded at $2.3 billion, by $4 million.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently stressed the importance of water infrastructure in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“Administrator Pruitt is committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with states to fulfill the agency’s core mission,” EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine said March 16 in a statement. “We are redesigning the way we do business to focus on achieving our core responsibilities—working with the states to ensure clean and breathable air, protecting water quality and investing in infrastructure, restoring our communities, ensuring timely review of chemicals and products to ensure safety for American families, all of which will have a positive impact on the environment and the economy.”
Trump’s proposal also would scrap an Interior Department abandoned mine land grant program. That carve-out appears “at odds” with Trump’s promises to revive coal country and restore decision-making power to states, Lauren Pagel, a director at the conservation group Earthworks, told Bloomberg BNA. “Those abandoned mind land grants that he’s getting rid of go directly to coal-producing states to help with emergency cleanup and other things like that.”
The proposal identifies the grants as part of a group of “unnecessary, lower priority, or duplicative” programs.
The EPA’s work on enforcement and compliance would be cut by $126 million—or 23 percent below the fiscal year 2016 enacted budget. The EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance budget would be reduced to $419 million.
The cut “avoids duplication by concentrating EPA’s enforcement of environmental protection violations on programs that are not delegated to states, while providing oversight to maintain consistency and assistance across State, local, and tribal programs,” the budget proposal says.
The OECA office already had been cut in recent years. In fiscal year 2010, Congress appropriated $597 million for EPA enforcement. The budget outline didn't provide a breakout figure for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The proposal largely is lacking in details, and many observers called this the opening salvo in what could be an arduous budget process on Capitol Hill. Still, the document is the most thorough articulation of the Trump administration’s energy and environment plans to date.
Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who left office less than two months ago, called the blueprint a “scorched earth budget that represents an all-out assault on clean air, water, and land.”
But many conservatives view the proposal as a delivered promise.
“I think all of it has to be put into a larger context,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a policy research fellow at the free-market Heartland Institute, referring to cuts at all agencies with environmental responsibilities. “Donald Trump has said, ‘We’re going to have a smaller government.’ Conservatives in Congress [and] the Republican platform, as long as I’ve been in existence, have continually said, ‘We’re the party for smaller government.’”
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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