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The Right Wing’s Endless War on the U.S. EPA

When President Biden proposed his fiscal 2024 EPA budget this past spring, he asked for a 19% increase over the current budget, bringing it from about 10 to 12 billion dollars. In the budget compromise that enabled the U.S. to avoid defaulting on its debt, the president and Congress agreed to modest budget cuts to enable the start of reductions in the U.S. budget deficit. Accordingly, last week the Senate enacted a small cut in EPA’s budget. However, the extreme conservatives in the House of Representatives proposed drastic cuts in EPA’s budget. Reporting on the legislative status of EPA’s budget, Greenwire reporters Kevin Bogardus, Michael Doyle, and Nidhi Prakash observed that under the Senate bill:

“EPA would receive $9.9 billion in fiscal 2024. That is slightly lower than the agency’s current annual budget of $10.1 billion. The proposal also does not match the 19 percent funding increase Biden requested for the agency at nearly $12.1 billion in his budget proposal earlier this year. The House Republican bill would slash EPA’s funding by almost $4 billion, or 39 percent from enacted levels, bringing the agency’s annual budget down to about $6.2 billion for fiscal 2024.”

Since President Biden came to office and appointed Michael Regan as Administrator of the EPA, the agency has been working to restore its organizational and scientific capacity after the destructive impact of the Trump administration. The work is far from complete, and while more money is needed, less money would be incredibly destructive.

According to Inside EPA, the House of Representative’s proposed budget reductions:

“… would cut the agency’s Science and Technology account by about 30 percent from enacted FY23 levels, to $560 million; the Environmental Programs and Management Account by 26 percent, to $2.429 billion; the hazardous substance Superfund account by 72 percent, to $355.9 million; and state and tribal assistance grants (STAG) by 42 percent, to $2.584 billion, according to the GOP summary.”

The Senate bill would enable EPA to continue the process of rebuilding its organizational capacity. The House bill would bring back the dysfunction of the Trump years and result in a resumption of the exodus of skilled scientists and regulators from this critical agency.

The structure of American environmental law is far from perfect, and some EPA rules are unjust and out of date. But the overall impact of EPA and its state and local counterparts has been to enable continued economic growth with far less pollution than we would see without rules and regulations. The air and water in America is cleaner today than it was when the EPA was established in 1970. This has been accomplished in the face of a growing population and growing economy. A problem with “starving the regulatory beast” of resources is that it does not result in less government intrusion into the private sector, but less competent and less tailored application of rules.

The use of modern observational, computing, and communication technology might well enable EPA to tailor the application of rules to maximize benefits while minimizing costs. Many EPA enforcement agreements with corporations are designed to provide ample time to comply with rules while maintaining business operations. But EPA’s ability to use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer is limited by inadequate staff, equipment, and resources. Under conditions of reduced resources, enforcement cannot be fine-tuned, and the result is sometimes legal but unwise use of enforcement powers. Environmental regulation is stuck in a half-century-old time warp, but it will never be modernized with the extreme anti-regulatory ideologues controlling Congress. Obama was forced to cut EPA staff during the reign of the Tea Party, and now Biden is in danger of allowing the same old song to be sung once again.

EPA is more than a regulatory agency. It performs two other critical functions. It provides grants and loans to states and localities to build environmental infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants. And it conducts scientific research on our environmental conditions. Both of those functions would be decimated once again by the budget coming out of the House of Representatives. I understand that some conservatives object to the federal government exercising regulatory power and that many believe environmental protection should be a state function. Unfortunately, air, water, and toxic pollution have a nasty habit of crossing state lines and even national borders. That is why we have a commerce clause of the Constitution, to regulate interstate commerce; interstate pollution is an outgrowth of interstate commerce. While most environmental problems are in fact local, as we learned from those orange skies this summer, some pollution comes from forest fires or smokestacks hundreds of miles away. Additionally, some states do not have the resources to amass the scientific expertise needed to protect their own environment.

State and local governments collectively have many more people involved in protecting the environment than are employed by the federal government and spend more money managing waste, sewage, and water supply than the federal government spends. But sometimes states fail to protect the public, as we saw when lead pipes poisoned the water in Flint, Michigan, or when a freight train leaked toxic gas in East Palestine, Ohio. Federal expertise, oversight, and resources are sometimes needed, and, in those instances, when a threat to public health is clear and present, the issue is not framed in ideological terms. But for some reason, when the issue gets translated into federal budget politics, it gets transformed from emergency response to government overreach.

The conservative attack on environmental protection has its origins in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” and other grassroots responses by farmers and ranchers to federal regulation of farming practices and the role of the federal government in western states where the feds are a large-scale landowner of national parks and other properties. The federal government has a mixed record of listening to local concerns about land use. The economic challenges of farming and ranching were often met with rigidity from regulators in the Department of Interior and the EPA. These grassroots forces made common cause with corporations that couldn’t be bothered with environmental stewardship. There was also a sense among conservatives that regulation was stifling business initiative and that the dire forecasts of environmentalists were overstated and even hysterical. While the specifics of their grievances were different, the source of their problem was the same indifferent Washington bureaucrats.

I understand the perspective of some corporate interests when they argue against environmental rules that will be costly to implement and certainly understand the difficulty ranchers and farmers face trying to make a living off the land even before we found ourselves in a climate-challenged world. But I have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to make it easier for the public to be poisoned. If your next-door neighbor has a septic tank that leaks into your drinking water, shouldn’t the law protect you or at least allow you to recover the costs you incurred due to your neighbor’s negligence? If a chemical plant in Louisiana’s cancer alley leaks toxics into the surrounding neighborhood: How is that any different than your neighbor’s sewage destroying your drinking water? Why wouldn’t the public have the right to stop the poison and recover the costs of damage? I know that these days, Trump conservatives seem to mistrust institutions enforcing law and order. But I fail to understand why the right of a company to make money is more important than the right of a family to protect itself from poisons. And I don’t understand why cutting the resources of the agency that protects the environment is a conservative principle. I see how the politics evolved, but it seems like what’s needed is not deregulation but improved and smarter regulation. No one wants the environment damaged any more than anyone wants to see homicides and mass shootings. The issue is how we protect people and the planet. We need a new approach to protecting the planet, but that will not happen by starving agencies of resources.

When Congress reconvenes this fall, the extremists controlling the House of Representatives seem determined to have their way on the budget or they will shut down the government. Since these folks don’t seem to want to have a federal government anyway, a shutdown almost seems to be their goal. Elections have consequences, but the majority in Congress should not allow the government to be hijacked by a small extreme minority. America needs a functioning and competent EPA. We won’t get one if we refuse to fund it.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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