Environment, Energy Agencies Prepare as Shutdown Threat Hovers

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By Dean Scott, Abby Smith, Rebecca Kern, Alan Kovski, Bruce Rolfsen, and Sylvia Carignan

The EPA and other federal regulators are dusting off contingency plans for a government shutdown, amid signs that both parties might fall short of deal before funding runs out at midnight Jan. 19.

Some agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, would at least be looking at recently revised agency shutdown plans that were updated last December.

Congressional aides still said the week will most likely end with at least a short-term extension that funds agencies for at least a few more weeks.

The GOP spending plan unveiled Jan. 16, for example, would extend funding until Feb. 16. But Democrats and Republicans remain divided on a host of issues, including immigration, suggesting at least the possibility that leaders are engaging in brinkmanship, even readying what sound like talking points that would put the blame for a shutdown squarely on the other party.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Jan. 17 that Democrats have been given “a rather attractive package” and he planned to take up what the Republican-controlled House sends over to the Senate in the coming days.

A Republican aide with the Senate Appropriations Committee told Bloomberg Environment talks are underway on both the “duration and scope” of the next continuing resolution.

Basically, they are debating how long to extend funding past Jan. 19—Democrats haven’t signed on yet to the GOP-proposed extension to Feb. 16—and also whether to attach disaster supplemental spending for Puerto Rico and possibly a multiyear renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

EPA’s Day-to-Day Work Stops

Much of the EPA’s day-to-day policy work would grind to a halt during a government shutdown—but the agency’s ability to respond quickly to environmental emergencies would get first priority under its contingency plan. The EPA emergency response program “serves as a safety net” for state, local, and private first responders, according to the agency’s December shutdown plan.

The agency also will maintain essential staff at Superfund sites that pose an imminent threat to human health.

In addition, EPA personnel would take steps to secure research property in the agency’s 29 program and regional labs. Law enforcement and legal personnel required for critical activities would work as necessary, but the EPA would consult the Justice Department regarding ongoing litigation.

In total, the EPA estimates that around 800 employees—413 from the agency headquarters and 386 staffers from the 10 regional offices—would have to stay on board during a shutdown to perform activities “necessary to protect life and property.” In addition, three presidentially appointed officials would continue work.

The EPA’s enforcement office would see nearly 30 percent of its staffers continue working during a shutdown. The agency’s program offices—such as the air, water, and chemicals offices—would be much more thinly staffed, however. Just six staffers in the chemicals office, seven in the water office, and 20 in the air office would continue work.

Energy: Furloughs If Prolonged Lapse

The Energy Department said in most cases it will require all federal employees to continue to report to work, according to its latest contingency plan from September 2015. A prolonged lapse in appropriations could require employee furloughs, but if an “imminent threat to human life or protection of property” arises, the a limited number of employees would be called back from furlough, it said.

The department didn’t provide any updated contingency plan at Bloomberg Environment’s request.

Also, the Energy Department said all government-funded contracts and financial assistance would continue. Depending on the length of the shutdown, however, the funding would stop for contracts unless their suspension would imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.

While the extent of an Energy Department shutdown would be be determined by “the availability of funds, they have already informed employees that they should expect to report to work because there is sufficient funding,” Jeff Eagan of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 213, which represents Energy Department career employees, told Bloomberg Environment.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in the event of a shutdown the executive director for operations will develop a shutdown plan and provide more guidance, according to its contingency plan updated in December 2017. The commission will continue to use prior-year funding to fund its necessary activities in the event of lapsed appropriations.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said in the case of a government shutdown, it will retain 49 employees and 18 contractors, or 4.6 percent of the total of 1,465 employees, according to its contingency plan updated in December 2017.

Interior to Keep Law Enforcement Active

The Interior Department, responsible for most federal lands and regulation of energy development in federal offshore waters, would keep much personnel active for law enforcement and other aspects of safety in the event of a shutdown.

That means essentially all activities of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the federal government’s primary land manager, would be halted with the exception of law enforcement, emergency response functions, and other activities to deal with safety risks.

Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, primary regulator for oil and gas activities in federal offshore waters, would keep approximately half its employees active, their jobs considered essential for life and safety. They also would get on-call support from 66 staff members of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Federal wildlife officers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another Interior agency, would remain active for law enforcement and protection of life and property in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Interior would close all national parks.

OSHA Plans

During the 2013 shutdown, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration furloughed about 90 percent of its 2,235 staff members.

At each of OSHA’s 92 area offices, only two staffers remained on the job: one senior inspector each for safety and health. At the Washington headquarters, only about 20 people stayed, primarily senior administrators and a handful of support personnel.

With few exceptions, planned inspections were shelved. The agency opened new investigations only in response to fatalities or accidents hospitalizing multiple workers.

The budget impasse also led to temporary cuts at some state safety and health agencies, where the federal government funds about half the agencies’ budget and states didn’t step in to makeup the blocked federal dollars.

Democrats Remain Noncommittal

Back on Capitol Hill, many Democrats aren’t ready to commit to voting on a funding extension they haven’t seen.

“I don’t know yet,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told reporters Jan. 17 when asked if he’d vote for it. “I’m thrilled that there’s a six-year extension of [Children’s Health Insurance Program, but] there are a number of things—I want to know more,” Brown said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) echoed a common talking point this week for Democrats, who are putting the blame squarely on Republicans for not moving a longer term spending bill even though they control all the levers of government.

“This would be the first time we’re in a threatened government shutdown where one party has control of both the House and Senate and the White House and they can’t pass a budget,” Cardin told reporters Jan. 17. “It’s ridiculous.”

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