New EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Is Balking at Trump’s Big Budget Cuts
Policy + Politics

New EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Is Balking at Trump’s Big Budget Cuts

Joshua Roberts

It was no surprise that former Environmental Protection Agency director Gina McCarthy reacted with shock and outrage to reports that the Trump administration budget office had proposed slashing her former agency’s budget by 25 per cent, jettisoning scores of vital environmental quality programs and climate change research in the process.

“I think people have to realize that this budget proposal that is being put on the table would take staffing levels at EPA down to where they were 40 years ago,” she said Wednesday on MSNBC. “This is really not about [Trump administration disagreement] on climate anymore. This is an attack on the agency.”

Related: A Plan to Drastically Cut EPA Staff and Programs Is on Trump’s Desk

More remarkable was the response of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general and long-time foe of EPA policies who was brought in by President Trump to run the EPA and preside over the dismantling of many of its most controversial programs, especially those designed to reduce industrial carbon emissions that directly contribute to global warming.

The night of President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress, during which the new president pledged to protect the quality of air and water, Pruitt told a reporter for E&E News that he had already raised concerns about the billions of cuts with Mick Mulvaney, the new Office of Management and Budget director and former Tea Party conservative House member from South Carolina.

"I am concerned about the grants that have been targeted, particularly around water infrastructure, and those very important state revolving funds," Pruitt told the reporter. "The importance is setting priorities as an agency and then allowing the budget to be formed around that. What's difficult, having only been there a week, is to have these kinds of recommendations made and then look at our priorities and say, 'You know what, we've got to make sure that we look at these programs.'"

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As state attorney general, Pruitt was closely aligned with the oil and gas industry and sued the EPA at least 14 times in recent years, challenging the agencies legal authority to regulate mercury pollution, smog and carbon emissions. A cache of 6,000 emails released last week as part of a law suit in Oklahoma showed that Pruitt carefully coordinated his efforts to thwart the Obama administration’s climate change initiatives with high level energy and utility company officials. In some cases, industry lawyers drafted letters for him to send to federal regulators.

Pruitt said during his Senate confirmation hearings that he did not believe climate change was a "hoax,” as Trump once insisted. However, he did argue that climate change needed more study and more debate, despite the huge body of existing research linking greenhouse gas emissions to global warming and rising sea levels.

Pruitt narrowly won Senate confirmation after his critics said his appointment to the EPA was tantamount to putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house. Yet now, barely a week into his tenure as the new EPA administrator, he is bridling against the budget cuts. He complained that they would wreak havoc with grants to states, multi-state air quality improvement efforts, and the cleanup of toxic Superfund and abandoned industrial brownfield sites.

He stepped up his complaints on Thursday, during a gathering of the nation’s mayors in Washington, signaling his intention to fight many of the proposed cuts.

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“I want you to know that with the White House and also with Congress, I am communicating a message that the brownfields program, the Superfund program, water infrastructure … are essential to protect,” Pruitt said. 

The EPA, the State Department and a handful of other agencies have been targeted by the administration for steep cuts to help offset the cost of a $54 billion increase in defense spending and a military buildup ordered by Trump. 

Although the EPA has operated under budget constraints for years, OMB’s proposal to slash the annual budget from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion next year – a 25 percent reduction – would constitute an unprecedented assault on the premier environmental protection agency that has operated or the past half century.

Trump, a climate change skeptic, has vowed to get rid of the EPA “in almost every form.” The administration and its GOP allies on Capitol Hill have already begun the process of overturning many of the Obama administration environmental regulations they claim have deterred energy exploration and economic expansion

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According to The Washington Post, Trump’s plan would slash the EPA’s staff from its current level of 15,000 to 12,000, with many of the agency’s top scientists slated for eventual termination. Grants to states, along with air and water programs, would be cut by 30 percent. A massive cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay would receive just $5 million in the coming fiscal year, down from $73 million.

The EPA’s Office of Research and Development potentially could lose up to 42 percent of its funding. And the new budget plan would eliminate funding completely for that office’s contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an important climate change initiative launched in 1989 by former President George H.W. Bush.

“This is going to the heart of our air and water protection,” McCarthy said of the proposed budget cuts in an interview on MSNBC. “This is going to the heart of how EPA protects public health and American families, so that you can turn you tap water on and expect to have clean drinking water. So that we can deal with kids who have asthma attacks and provide cleaner air for them.”

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It’s hard to imagine that Pruitt in the end will be anything other than a team player in trying to implement the cuts that Trump and Mulvaney are trying to implement. But still, it’s possible that now that he is ensconced as administrator learning first-hand the challenges and responsibilities of the EPA, Pruitt could be taking a more nuanced approach to overhauling and downsizing the agency.

“It remains to be seen how much he has actually changed,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “How much of this is a combination of the turf protection that hits and getting yourself into the culture of an agency? Or maybe it’s a sharper understanding that the cuts that they’re going to make are actually going to hit places like Oklahoma hard, because a lot of that money goes for cleaning up toxic sites and other kinds of things that are right in their wheelhouse.”

“They don’t mind creating the toxic sites, but they want somebody else to pay for cleaning them up,” he added. Oklahoma currently has seven Superfund sites, with most of them at abandoned oil refineries.

What’s more, Congress will have the final say in how deeply to cut EPA programs. The early indication is that Democrats and some Republicans are opposed to taking a meat axe to the agency’s budget.

Although the Republicans have frequently extracted cuts in EPA programs, many Republicans have refused to go along with massive, one-time cuts in spending, according to The Hill. Indeed, 56 House Republicans voted against a floor amendment to cut the agency’s budget by 17 percent.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Tuesday that he thought Trump’s overall budget proposals would be “dead on arrival” in Congress. And Rep. Tom Cole (R-Ok), a veteran GOP strategist and House Appropriations Committee member, said, “I’d like to look and see what actually gets out of committee.”