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By Brian Dabbs
A set of specific terms included in EPA contracts, such as “green” and “sustainability,” triggered particular scrutiny among agency transition officials following President Donald Trump’s inauguration in late January, an EPA high-ranking program director and an agency budget specialist told Bloomberg BNA.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s “beachhead” team said those particular words, as well as several others, would be subject to that extra attention, but ultimately the agency authorized all contracts roughly a week after a controversial initial freeze. Other flagged words included “education” and “technical assistance,” according to both officials, who asked to stay anonymous due to agency policy about speaking to the news media and the sensitivity surrounding the contract language.
Despite the release of contracts, that top-down verbal directive is causing consternation among some officials, the program director told Bloomberg BNA.
Although there is no new policy and no available written memos on contract language scrutiny, the director said the episode may be a harbinger for a future crackdown.
“Our senior managers are advising us verbally, ‘In the future, if you have work that you want to do, you should try to avoid those words,’ because those are words that apparently give them great concern,” the director said. “We haven’t had anybody in any past administration be concerned about that kind of thing.”
Meanwhile, the budget specialist, who is involved in the processing of contracts and grants, stressed that no additional directives have been provided on contract language use. But the special scrutiny may square with a recent trend of cracking down on agency communication activity and tactics.
The agency’s main social media accounts had been silenced since Inauguration Day, but resumed updates following the confirmation of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, as EPA administrator Feb. 17.
Environmental groups and Democrats blast Pruitt for, in their view, underestimating the significance of the human connection to climate change and initiatives to combat that connection. Pruitt admits some connection exists but argues there is no scientific consensus on the magnitude. In his first remarks to EPA staff Feb. 21, the new administrator didn’t mention the term “climate.”
The EPA awards contracts to private engineers, scientists and other service providers to complete a broad range of tasks, such as developing greenhouse gas emissions mobile modeling and helping tribal organizations meet Safe Drinking Water Act compliance. The EPA spent about $5.3 billion in fiscal year 2016 on grants and contracts, according to Usaspending.gov.
The director said the selection of the terms was based loosely on a Heritage Foundation blueprint for fiscal year 2017. That blueprint would gut EPA funding by roughly $5 billion, even as the agency is currently funded at just more than $8.1 billion. The conservative group calls for the elimination of nine climate programs, which account for the majority of reductions, but sustainability and outreach activities are also targeted.
“Promoting ‘sustainability,’ ‘Smart Growth,’ and similar social engineering is not a proper function of the federal government,” the blueprint says. The document also urges the elimination of informational outreach programs, saying: “While some of these projects might be worthwhile, they are far beyond the appropriate scope of the federal government. Such projects should be funded at the local level or by private companies.”
The Heritage Foundation didn’t respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment, nor did EPA spokespeople or a spokesman for the beachhead team.
The beachhead team, which issued the directive, is a coterie of temporary political officials tasked with laying the groundwork for new agency policy. The team is relatively amorphous but features Washington state senator Don Benton (R) as chief adviser to the White House.
The administration of President Donald Trump instructed EPA officials to freeze contracts and state grants several days after inauguration. States rely on federal grants to implement bedrock environmental statutes and programs. Alexandra Dunn, executive director of the nonpartisan Environmental Council of the States, told Bloomberg BNA the beachhead team flagged some grants for further review, but never actually held up most state and tribal assistance grants.
Pruitt has advocated far more reliance on state regulation to tackle environmental issues, while condemning federal overreach. The state grants are largely noncontroversial.
Stan Meiburg, the acting EPA deputy administrator from late 2014 through the end of the Obama administration, told Bloomberg BNA a freeze on such disbursements is typical in any presidential transition. He said he had no personal knowledge of the contract language scrutiny, but described it as “noticeable” if accurate. Still, Meiburg said such a policy would encourage workarounds.
“It’s hard to say whether any such changes would have any significance or which contracts would be affected without more specific information, as the reference of the terms ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ is not clear,” Meiburg said.
Meanwhile, the budget specialist privy to language scrutiny told Bloomberg BNA it appears that directive has “lost steam.”
“I don’t know who was the first one to mention those words, and in terms of it resulting in any actionable event, at least in my office and where we work, it just didn’t happen,” the specialist said. “We didn’t have people coming and looking at our stuff or we didn’t have a bunch of line-items flagged.”
The program director, however, said agency contracts face an uncertain future.
“In the end they released that contract money, but did teach us a lesson in terms of the six words we needed to be worried about in the future,” the director said. “So what we’ll need to see now, as step two that we start to have political leadership instead of just this beachhead team, how do they want to operationalize that?”
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