Trump's EPA Budget Cuts May Unleash a Backlash as Risks Remain

  • Environmentalists will fight to protect EPA’s core functions
  • Popular grants to states and tribes likely would be preserved

President Donald Trump’s plan to slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s $8.3 billion budget would almost certainly mean making deep cuts to programs that protect the air and water and invoke fierce protests from environmentalists.

That’s because roughly two out of every five dollars dedicated to the EPA ends up steered to state, tribal and local governments. Even Trump’s own advisers and the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, say the agency’s state environmental grants are off limits. That means the administration would need to reduce the EPA’s already tight budget for enforcing environmental laws and its legally mandated portfolio of other work, said John Coequyt, global climate policy director for the Sierra Club.

Opponents plan to fan public outrage, tapping into a movement that has pushed angry constituents to pack lawmakers’ town hall meetings to complain about proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act. And in the same way that widespread fondness for Big Bird once helped insulate public broadcasting -- and the flagship show "Sesame Street" -- from evisceration, critics are ready to highlight how budget cutbacks at EPA headquarters translates to air pollution in the heartland and lead pipes delivering drinking water in cities nationwide.

"The core premise here is that they can make very substantial cuts to the agency, leaving alone the state and local grant side, which is roughly half the budget," Coequyt said in a phone interview. "We have real doubts that can be done without substantially weakening the ability of EPA to respond to environmental problems and to carry out its core functions that are all established in law."

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That may be the intended goal. Trump has consistently lambasted the agency -- once saying it should disappear altogether -- and criticized EPA regulations that he says burden companies, throttle energy development and delay factory construction.

The EPA is one of the the Trump administration’s top targets as it lays out plans to boost defense spending by $54 billion annually using money freed up by broad reductions across the rest of the government’s discretionary budget. It will take more than the EPA to get there; the agency is operating with an $8.3 billion budget and about 15,000 workers this year -- roughly the same spending level it has maintained for six years.

‘Massive Cuts’

"They’re talking about massive cuts in an agency whose budget has basically been flat," said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They’re not hiding their overall goal in terms of a long-run effort to basically hobble the ability of the government to protect the public."

Pruitt sidestepped a question about whether his agency’s resources could be sharply reduced during a discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday. But in speeches since his Feb. 17 confirmation, Pruitt has stressed the importance of EPA’s core mission of protecting the air and water, as well as cleaning up toxic Superfund sites. And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he pledged to defend the EPA funding that goes to states.

They are on "the front line of a lot of work on air and water quality and infrastructure," Pruitt said. "It’s very important that money continue."

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And Myron Ebell, a longtime EPA critic who led the Trump transition team focused on the agency, said that reductions could be made without affecting those popular grants for water projects and other infrastructure. Pruitt "doesn’t want to touch those pass-through grants," Ebell said in an interview.

Ebell has suggested some cuts could come by paring EPA’s workforce through attrition and by delegating more work on water permitting and other matters to states.

Past presidents, however, have found it tough to swing an ax at the agency, which ended up growing under Ronald Reagan’s administration, despite a 35 percent cut during his first year in office.

Environmentalists say they will vigorously defend the agency by drawing on support from moderate Republicans in Congress and Americans who value its work to safeguard the air and water.

"We will resist and hold accountable Donald Trump and members of Congress who support a spending plan that puts polluters first over the health of everyday people in this country," said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters. "Trump’s rigged budget would stack the deck in favor of Big Oil and other corporate lobbyists."

Flint’s Water

Environmentalists warn that lawmakers and the Trump administration would be risking a backlash the next time there is a public health crisis, such as lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

"Everyone is going to expect them to be there when something happens," Coequyt said.

More than 40 percent of EPA’s budget -- about $3.5 billion -- is dedicated to state and tribal grants used to pay for staff and support an array of programs, including initiatives that protect drinking water. State clean air and water programs also benefit.

Beyond the funding EPA steers to the states, the agency has a wide portfolio of work mandated by Congress, from setting ambient air quality standards for pollution and scrutinizing the toxicity of a slew of chemicals to reviewing state permits for proposed construction in wetlands. It also sets standards for contaminants in drinking water, supervises oil spill cleanup operations, provides resources to get sewage treatment operations online quickly after disasters and oversees the restoration of toxic Superfund sites.

David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program, called the bloodletting "an obvious attempt to damage EPA’s capacity over the long term."

Given its relatively small size, "zeroing out the EPA or badly damaging the EPA budget will not go very far to extend our defense capacity. It’s a sham argument," Doniger said. Instead, he said, "these guys are thinking ahead; they want to cripple the administrative state over the long term."