Undermining the Environmental Protection Agency through budget cuts, Round 1?

We are approaching the halfway mark for this fiscal year and the House Appropriations Chair, Harold Rogers (R-KY), proposed yesterday to make deep cuts to EPA’s budget for the current year.  He proposed cuts of more than $2.4 billion over the remaining 6 months of the fiscal year, representing a 16% cut for EPA’s total budget for the year, but an effective 32% cut for the budget in the remaining months.

The response from newly elected House Republicans was that these draconian cuts were not enough. The headline from an article in today’s Energy and Environmental Daily on the issue is not subtle: EPA: Tea party's congressional allies diverge on how to gut agency

The many people who were frustrated with government in the 2010 elections and voted for Tea Party members probably did not realize they were voting to “gut” environmental protections that Americans have enjoyed for the past several decades. A recent poll about proposals to weaken Clean Air Act rules indicates that members of Congress pushing to weaken environmental protection are distancing themselves from the electorate. Meanwhile the proposed budget cuts bear a striking resemblance to the Santa wish-list of K Street coal, chemical, oil and gas lobbyists. These lobbyists came late to the Tea Party, but made up for their tardiness with dollars. 

The environmental and economic benefits provided by EPA’s work are visible in communities across America, ranging from reduced smog to cleaner waters and the all but end of indiscriminate hazardous waste dumping. These improvements have led to billions of dollars in health benefits that even the George W. Bush Administration catalogued. The dollars these safeguards have saved come primarily from reducing the number of Americans who become ill because of pollution. 

The cost of the programs responsible for these improvements is a relatively small portion of the federal budget, and thus a very small percentage of the average American family’s tax expenditures. Yet, the benefits derived from these programs are extraordinary: clean air for our children to breathe, clean water for our families to drink, healthy public lands for people to recreate on, and clean oceans to support healthy fisheries and the livelihoods tied to this precious resource.

It makes little sense to decimate the budgets for vital environmental programs that increase our economic competitiveness and protect our public health and well-being. Environmental protection is not at odds with economic growth; over the past 40 years environmental protection has sparked  a new American industry that has created thousands of jobs controlling or eliminating pollution, all while making industry more efficient. Because U.S. environmental standards are in line with developed countries around the world, American companies have been able to export many of these technologies to other nations.

But Chairman Rogers and others have decided it is time to cripple EPA.  They argue that the standards required by Congress for EPA to protect our public health will “kill jobs.”  However, after 40 years of EPA standards protecting our air, water, and public lands, the only standards they point to as being “job killers” are the rules that have not yet gone into effect.  History has shown that predictions of economic doom from environmental standards are always offered by those subject to the rules.  But the much anticipated job losses are never realized as technology has consistently made even EPA’s predictions of the costs of meeting new standards much too pessimistic. 

At this point, Chairman Rogers has proposed two types of budget cuts: those to specific programs and broad unspecified cuts.  Politically, the vague cuts, including a $1.6 billion cut from unidentified parts of EPA’s budget, are easier to make; the members offering such cuts can’t be held accountable for political opposition such cuts would engender. If we see any “across the board” cuts, that will be the reason. A braver and more honest approach would be is to list specific cuts to individual programs allowing Americans to hold members accountable for their proposals. 

Most likely the presently unspecified $1.6 billion cut in the Rogers budget will come from EPA’s enforcement and regulatory programs. The impact on enforcement will translate into more pollution. Less staff would mean fewer inspections, even of those facilities with records of non-compliance.  The cop would be taken off the beat, giving a competitive advantage to those companies who violate the law. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of future pollution controls and cleanup actions would be lost as a result of the slowdown and foregone settlements. The budget cuts would also result in millions of dollars in lost fines and penalties from the most egregious violations, resulting in a loss to the Treasury and states, as well as a loss in deterrence. This is a cut that would only help companies who want to evade our environmental laws. 

The second largest cut proposed by Chairman Rogers is to EPA’s aid to local communities in providing adequate drinking water and sewage treatment. The cuts to these programs are just under $1 billion. Meanwhile, the EPA projects that there will be a $535 billion shortfall in financing these projects over the same time period, which will lead to increased sewer failures, interruptions in the dependable water supply, and increased health risks. Cutting these programs will also lead directly to more than 18,000 lost jobs, according to analysis by the Political Economy Research Institute and the Alliance for American Manufacturing. The only way to avoid these job losses would be to raise local taxes or use scarce state dollars to make up for the loss in federal aid. Another blow to local communities comes from recommended cuts of $45 million in the brownfields program. This will force many contaminated sites to languish, leaving dangerous pollution sources unaddressed. 

In short, the cuts proposed by Chairman Rogers are draconian cuts that will force scientists and other EPA staff into extended furloughs or layoffs undermining the agency’s effectiveness for years to come. But then again, perhaps that is the plan.