Environmental programs marked for death or deep cuts by President Donald Trump got a reprieve in the government funding deal revealed early Monday by congressional leaders — at least for now.
The Environmental Protection Agency, targeted for $247 million in cuts for this year’s funding, instead escaped with a budget trimmed by $81 million — or 1 percent — and no staff reductions. Research divisions within the Department of Energy received increases despite calls by Trump to slash or eliminate them. For example, its advanced research program, which would have been cut in half under Trump’s 2017 spending plan, instead will get a $15 million increase in funding this year.
“Trump threatens a lot of things, but ultimately Congress is going to what it wants to do,” said Stan Collender, a budget analyst and executive vice president of Qorvis MSLGroup in Washington. “What Congress is quickly learning is let the president talk as much as he wants, but ultimately we are going to present him with a bill he is either going to veto or not.”
Next year’s budget, which Congress will begin debating in the coming weeks, will be the real battleground. And the administration isn’t waiting: it has diminished the Obama-era focus on climate change in several ways, including changes to government websites unveiled last week.
Congress needs to pass the omnibus bill or another stopgap measure by the end of this week to avoid a government shutdown. The prospect of Trump shouldering blame for the government closing increased the leverage of Democrats and allowed many of Trump’s top priorities to be pushed aside. Democrats said they were able to stave off dozens of environmental policy riders, allowing just a few to slide through.
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The omnibus “reflects the reality there is a lot of support for clean energy,” said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council On Renewable Energy, which represents companies such as solar panel maker First Solar Inc. and electric vehicle battery manufacturer Panasonic Corp. “We are not done, but it’s a good day.”
When it comes to energy policies, this year’s budget is just one round of a longer fight. And Trump doesn’t need Congress to move forward with other parts of his agenda, as his administration has shown in recent days. Employee buyouts at the EPA have already begun; EPA is dropping websites devoted to explaining the science of climate change; and work on energy innovation programs has ground to a halt.
“This is mostly an extension of the status quo. We look forward to 2018 to right-size the role of energy and environment in federal spending,” said Chrissy Harbin, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, the political group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. “The fiscal year 2018 appropriations process is probably a much better opportunity.”
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Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal included sweeping cuts to federal environmental programs, including a $2.4 billion, 30 percent reduction for the EPA and another $2 billion in cuts from the Energy Department’s offices of efficiency, renewable energy and other areas. It also proposed ending dozens of programs, ranging from EPA’s Energy Star certification of appliances to the Energy Department’s loan guarantees for innovative clean-energy technology.
At the EPA, roughly 3,200 employees would be culled from the agency’s 15,000-member workforce. Even without a budget cut, the agency is already moving to implement that plan: EPA staff were summoned to early buyout information sessions last week and counselors were offering employees advice on how to handle “transition in the workplace.”
Regardless of the budget changes, the EPA is already undergoing a dramatic reorientation of its policy. Administrator Scott Pruitt has described his “back to basics approach” as one of “working in coordination with states to create a healthy environment where jobs and businesses can grow.” That shift is already manifest on EPA websites, as agency staff obliterate a climate change portal and add new information about “energy independence.”