Proposed EPA Budget Cuts Hamstring Environmental Protection

By Elizabeth Leuin

What does environmental “protection” look like when the head of the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t consider human activity a primary contributor to global warming?

New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said March 9 on CNBC’s Squawk Box, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact… So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

In his prior role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 13 times, largely over the Clean Power Plan put forward during the Obama Administration. It’s clear the Trump Administration does not prioritize environmental policy, but what specific changes can we expect to see?

Founded in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the EPA is no stranger to controversy. Clean air, water quality, land use, and science research all fall under its regulatory umbrella, often facing high levels of opposition. Just last week, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz introduced a bill to Congress to eliminate the agency by 2018.

In 2016, the EPA’s $8.1 billion budget accounted for only 0.2% of federal spending. The White House Office of Management and Budget plan proposes to cut EPA’s budget by 31%, along with  a 3,200 person reduction of its 15,000 full-time workforce. While this does not represent a formal proposal, nor is likely to pass through Congress in its entirety, the documents do offer insight into White House priorities.

If the proposed changes are passed, the Environmental Justice program will be one of over 50 programs eliminated. The Environmental Justice program provides small grants to minority and low-income communities in order to help them implement local solutions to disproportionate pollutant exposures and other environmental and health concerns. Mustafa Ali, founder and head of the Environmental Justice program recently resigned, saying in an interview with InsideClimate News, “My values and priorities seem to be different than our current leadership and because of that I feel that it’s best if I take my talents elsewhere.” At only 0.08% of the EPA’s budget, the elimination of the program will save a total of $6.7 million.

Meanwhile, the Office of Research & Development faces a nearly 50% budget reduction, cutting science research in climate change and air quality and eliminating a $50 million external grant program to university-based environmental scientists. Science Magazine reports a senior EPA official saying the research office could “implode.”

The White House’s budget proposal recommends reducing the EPA’s budget by nearly a third from $8.1 billion to $5.7 billion. While this proposal doesn’t outline all specific program cuts, the Oregonian’s  leaked documents from a previous blueprint present a snapshot of programs most affected. Here is a sampling of those facing a cut greater than 75% of 2016 levels:

    •    Beach water quality testing (100%)
    •    Environmental education (94%)
      •  The $8.7 million the EPA spends annually on children’s environmental education would be cut to $555,000.
    •     Great Lakes restoration (97%)
      •  The initiative funds lake research and coastal habitat restoration, and supports farmer education to reduce agricultural runoff and toxic algal blooms that threaten drinking water.
    •    SF Bay (100%)
      • The $4.8 million federal program to protect the San Francisco Bay would be eliminated.
    •   Energy Star (100%)
      • This widely-supported initiative targets energy efficiency and reducing consumer energy expenses.
    •  U.S. Mexico-Border targeted watershed (100%)
      • The EPA’s funded work to slow garbage flow into the Pacific Ocean would be eliminated.

Climate change research funding would be completely eliminated.  So what’s left? The proposal’s recommended $600 million cut to state grants and funds is least likely to gain support in Congress. These funds support a wide variety of local initiatives, including cleaning up toxic brownfields, environmentally contaminated former industrial or commercial sites.

White House environmental priorities are becoming apparent beyond funding as well. According to the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, the EPA Office of Science & Technology Policy has already removed the word “science” from its mission.

Environmental programs outside the EPA are also in trouble. The Washington Post reports a $990 million proposed cut to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This 17% reduction would impact weather forecasting, natural disaster monitoring, and climate change research.

All changes will need to be approved by Congress through appropriations.  Parts of the proposal are already facing bipartisan opposition, most notably around toxic cleanups and state grants. While the White House budget may not pass in its entirety, it is highly likely controversial programs such as climate change research will disappear, further retracting U.S. leadership on global environmental challenges and retarding scientific progress.


Elizabeth Leuin is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.