EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the Trump Administration’s massive cuts to the EPA budget before a key House subcommittee on Thursday. The plan to dismantle our environmental protections was not well received – by either party.
The criticism of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at a budget hearing Thursday illustrates the difficulty Trump will have enacting his proposed spending plan for fiscal 2018. His blueprint calls for spending $54 billion more on defense and offsetting the increase with steep cuts to nearly every other agency — including 18 percent from the Department of Health and Human Services, 28 percent from the State Department and 21 percent from the Labor Department. The EPA faces some of the steepest cuts: a 31 percent reduction that would result in 3,200 employees being culled from the agency’s 15,000-member workforce.
Lawmakers were not impressed. Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, offered mock congratulations to Pruitt: “You’re going to be the first EPA administrator that has come before this committee in eight years that actually gets more money than they ask for.”
As the Washington Post noted: “President Trump once vowed to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” leaving behind only “tidbits.”
Pruitt clearly supports this outcome, although he would say so directly. As Mother Jones environment reporter Rebecca Leber tweeted. “Pruitt’s standard response today: You’re right this is a concern and we will still do it all though the budget eliminates the office.”
Here’s an example of typical Pruitt-speak:
“I believe we can fulfill the mission of our agency with a trimmed budget, with proper leadership and management,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee, adding in his prepared remarks that the Trump administration’s proposal “supports EPA’s highest priorities” while aiming “to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies.”
The “trimmed” budget he referenced would amount to a cut of more than 31 percent, or $2.4 billion annually — a larger percentage than at any other federal agency. The administration wants to rid the EPA of thousands of employees and sharply reduce or eliminate a variety of national and regional programs.
Congress holds the power of the purse – and Republicans are protective of their home districts
Watching the Democrats take Pruitt to task was not a surprise. Watching Republican members take swings was more revealing. As Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni observes:
The pattern: Just as senators are inclined to defend the budgets of Energy Department labs that employ residents of their states, House members are inclined to defend EPA programs that they believe benefit their constituents.
This is where rubber meets road for the Party of Small Government. In the abstract, Republicans generally want to reduce government spending. But they flinch when the budgetary ax swings down on hometown programs. (Emphasis in original.)
So what did Committee members have to say? Here’s a summary of Representative questions (and Pruitt non-answers).
Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.: “I’ll get straight to it. The fiscal year 2018 budget request for EPA is a disaster,” adding that it would “surely impact EPA’s ability to fulfill its critical mission of protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink.”… “[Through the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, the EPA] screens pesticides, chemicals, [and] environmental contaminants to determine their potential effect on human hormone systems, altered reproductive function in males and females, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children, increases [in] incidents of breast cancer and changes to immune function… How do you justify eliminating funding for this program? Aren’t you alarmed by the link between exposure to chemicals in the environment and consumer products and changes to hormones, health and development of people and animals? What should EPA’s role be?”
Pruitt: “Congresswoman, I do share your concerns . . . you raise a very, very important question . . . this is our approach presently, but I look forward to your input on how maybe this could be restored and/or addressed in a different way.”
Tom Cole, R-Okla.: “When I see the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (GAP) cut by $257 billion and see state and tribal assistant grants cut by $678 million, and I see a $69 million cut in the pollution control grant program of the Clean Water Act which has a section on tribal guidance, that worries me . . . So when you make these cuts [given current tribal taxation law], how will they make up those monies, particularly given the biggest recipients tend to be the poorest tribes and the most isolated land masses and areas with the most limited economic tools available? There’s a big difference between states and localities that have taxing powers and Indian tribes that don’t,” Cole said, explaining that it would be difficult for tribal government to fill the vacuum left by the EPA.
Pruitt: “It’s particularly important with respect to rural communities across the country, in addition to tribal communities, as you’ve indicated — the tribal nations — congressman, that we recognize the very important role that the EPA plays in water infrastructure, air attainment and facilitation. And as we go through the budgeting process, i look forward to working with you, the chairman and the ranking member to address those concerns.”
Pruitt: “This body has for a number of years recognized the importance of the initiative. We at the agency have recognized that as well. As we start this process and continue the process, we look forward to working with you to address the objectives — the water quality objectives, and you mentioned invasive species, as well. We want to make sure that the states affected, the commerce that’s a part of the Great Lakes is preserved, and we address that going forward in this budget.”
Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, Ninth District: “In your confirmation, you committed to supporting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, so the following question you can answer yes or no, we make it easy. Can you please clarify, did your budget leave EPA with the $300 million in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative whole or zeroed out?”
Pruitt: “That process, congresswoman, as far as the submission to the agency and the passback, that’s something that — it’s been a little while since we . . . those numbers.. I looked at those numbers; in our discussions we talked about the importance of the Great Lakes Initiative.” (Clearly, “yes or no” is not in Pruitt’s vocabulary.)
Betty McCollum, D-Minn.: “[As Attorney General of Oklahoma], you had a lot of correspondence with Devon Energy, who was aggressively challenging rules proposed by the EPA . . . [Now] it’s backing away from an agreement to install a system to detect leaks of dangerous gas . . . Based on your relationship with Devon Energy, when you were attorney general, how do you plan on handling this issue? Are you going to recuse yourself [from the current investigation]? Because now you’re the [head of the] EPA.”
Pruitt:“I would say to you as far as enforcement is concerned, I talked about that in my opening comments. Enforcement matters to me. You mentioned my time as Attorney General. We had a grand jury; I led significant enforcement activities. I understand there are bad actors in the marketplace. There are individuals and companies that discharge toxins and pollutants into the water that need to be prosecuted.”
Rep. Kevin Calvert R-Calif. (Subcommittee chair, hailing “from California’s smoggy Inland Empire” ) used his time to question Pruitt on whether he’d continue to honor California’s waiver allowing the state to pursue tougher greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles. The auto industry and some conservatives have pressed the Trump administration to rescind California’s waiver, but Pruitt said it was not currently under review. (Note the qualifier “currently.”) Listing cuts to the Targeted Air Shed Grant Program (and other EPA programs) Calvert said, “these are all proposals we are unlikely to entertain.” Riverside County, in which Calvert’s district sits, received grants to address ozone and particulate matter pollution for the 2016 fiscal year. Calvert also criticized a line in the budget that would eliminate a program for reducing diesel emissions.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho (famous for its potato farms) took issue with proposed cuts to EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs. “With a strong Office of Pesticide Programs,” Simpson said, “job creators in my district and other places in the country, such as the potato industry, would not have access to the essential crop protection tools.”
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J, did not support the proposed 30% cuts to the Superfund program, which is responsible for cleaning up some of the most contaminated waste sites in the United States. ” “I share at times some of the animus that is aimed at your agency,” Frelinghuysen told Pruitt. “But I also come from the nation’s most densely populated state, New Jersey,” which has “more Superfund sites than any other state in the nation.” Indeed, the four New Jersey counties through which Frelinghuysen’s district stretches — Essex, Morris, Passaic and Sussex — contain a total of 27, according to the EPA’s website. “Ultimately it will be this committee and our Senate counterparts that determine the final outcome,” Frelinghuysen said of the EPA’s budget…the power of the purse is here on Capitol Hill.”
Pruitt said Superfund “is absolutely a priority,” and said he would boost the program’s “accountability.” Many projects have languished on a national priority list for decades without “direction, leadership, and, in some cases, answers for how we’re going to remediate sites,” he said.
A brief aside on Superfund and EPA ‘s enforcement programs
As a former Superfund enforcement attorney, I’d note that Congressional funding cuts to the Superfund program caused more delays than “direction or leadership” within EPA. Moreover, some 70% of Superfund sites are cleaned up by responsible parties working under negotiated, court-approved settlements with EPA – that;’s the way Congress set up the program. Negotiations take time – as do the careful scientific studies and engineering analyses required to provide that legal “certainty” Pruitt is so fond of invoking.
Trump & Pruitt propose cutting EPA enforcement staff by ~ 20%. What kind of “direction and leadership” does that suggest?
The Environmental Integrity Project recently summarized some of the monetary savings achieved through enforcement:
- Since 2003, EPA’s Superfund program has wrangled nearly $20 billion from responsible parties to clean up contaminated dumpsites and bring these abandoned properties back to life. That is far more than the agency spends on enforcement, and budget cuts will just stick taxpayers with the tab for these cleanups.
- EPA enforcement actions since 2000 have cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants, refineries, autos and other major sources by 6.7 million tons, eliminating more than 20,000 premature deaths a year from heart and lung disease
- Civil and criminal enforcement settlements since 2000 have required violators to commit nearly $150 billion to install scrubbers and other air pollution controls, upgrade sewage treatment plants, restore damaged watersheds, and take other actions to protect air and water quality. Violators have paid more than $6.4 billion in penalties to the U.S. Treasury or restitution to victims since 2000, more than offsetting the cost of maintaining these enforcement programs.
- In 2016, for example, civil enforcement by the agency was responsible for $13.7 billion in environmental projects and injunctive relief, as well as $1.4 billion in civil penalties. Criminal enforcement last year brought $207 million in restitution and fines, and $775,000 in court-ordered environmental projects.
Oh – and did we mention that Attorney General Jeff Sessions just banned settlements that put penalty money back into community projects – instead of going to the general fund? There’s a bill in the House aimed at banning these kinds of settlements permanently. These settlements have been used for years to fund all kinds of environmental projects, from wetlands restoration to spill remediation to environmental education. Putting penalty dollars directly into environmental projects saves taxpayer dollars and helps polluting companies re-build trust with their communities. Why would anyone with an ounce of sense want to elikminate them? But I digress…
Remember that the budget battle has just begun
It was heartening to see bipartisan resistance to the proposed Trump budget cuts for EPA. But resisting cuts to programs popular in a particular House District will not necessarily add up to a functional EPA budget. As Former EPA Adminstrator Gina McCarthy said in an interview [with Bloomberg] Wednesday. “Congress could very well claim success by doing half of what’s proposed — and half of what’s proposed would be devastating.”