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By Brian Dabbs
The EPA is not aiming to relocate any of its 10 regional offices, and ongoing discussion of that prospect is “pure legend,” Admininstrator Scott Pruitt told House appropriators June 15.
That statement comes after months of speculation over a regional shakeup, which has drawn criticism and concern from outside groups and internally at the Environmental Protection Agency.
On top of that, the agency doesn’t plan to lay off any workers in the coming year, despite a Fiscal Year 2018 budget that calls for a reduction of more than 3,000 employees, Pruitt told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies at a hearing on the Trump administration’s budget proposal that would slash EPA funding by nearly a third.
“The proposed cuts to personnel in this budget will be achieved through attrition, through voluntary buyouts and through the hiring freeze that is currently in place,” Pruitt said, adding that agency staff is aging and nearing retirement. Around 400 to 500 buyouts could take place this fiscal year.
Still, the budget would bring the agency down to 11,611 employees, the fewest in three decades. Congress will weigh in on all EPA budget proposals and craft separate plans.
Democrats and environmental groups have criticized the budget as a threat to human health, and even Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the top appropriator at the hearing, said the committee is “unlikely to entertain” many of the cuts.
Democrats also criticized Pruitt.
“Between your disturbingly close ties to oil and gas industries, your past work to directly undermine the EPA and skepticism that human activity plays a role in climate change, I suppose it’s surprising you didn’t propose to eliminate the agency altogether,” Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told Pruitt.
Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times as Oklahoma attorney general.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said she would oppose any EPA budget that undercuts the roughly $8.3 billion Fiscal Year 2017 funding.
Much of the hearing focused on Pruitt’s regulatory goals. The agency aims to curb what it says was “overreach” on the part of the Obama administration in a number of areas while providing certainty to companies, Pruitt said.
The EPA will seek legislative fixes to environmental laws in order to avoid lengthy litigation involving the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule, Pruitt said.
“When you disrespect rule of law, and what that fundamentally means, is when you take statutes passed by Congress and act in a way that’s not authorized, it creates uncertainty,” Pruitt told lawmakers. “If you have not spoken to an issue, if you have not given authority to the agency, we’re not to reimagine it. We’re not going to create it. We’re going to let you know when those deficiencies arise.”
Two high-profile regulations have been in legal limbo in recent years, and the Environmental Protection Agency is now reconsidering both. The Clean Power Plan, arguably the hallmark of the Obama administration’s environmental legacy, would require decreased carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The Clean Water Rule, which sought to clarify which types of waters are subject to federal protections, will be re-proposed no later than the first quarter of 2018, Pruitt said.
Lawmakers may want to amend the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards to loosen non-attainment for western regions with naturally occurring ozone, he added.
But a Republican member from Utah, who pleaded for regulatory relief from the standards, dismissed the likelihood of legislative action.
“If you say you need the help of Congress, well all hope is lost,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said, arguing his state is getting “hosed” by the standards. “The narrative will be Republicans want to weaken clean air standards, and that’s not true.”
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