WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wants Congress to deeply cut funding for his own agency in the next fiscal year.
The Trump administration this month asked Congress to slash the EPA’s annual budget by about $2.4 billion for fiscal 2021— that’s a 26% cut from the funding the agency received for fiscal year 2020.
It’s not the first time the White House has asked Congress for deep cuts at EPA. Trump has proposed steep funding reductions for EPA each year he’s been in office, although those cuts have been consistently rebuffed by members of Congress. Generally, even EPA’s toughest critics in Congress support funding for EPA’s bread-and-butter programs like water infrastructure and hazardous waste cleanup.
Still, the White House is attempting yet again to whittle down the agency that Trump called a “disgrace” when he was on the presidential campaign trail. “We can leave a little bit,” he said in a 2015 interview when asked about the EPA.
And while the heads of agencies have traditionally sought to expand their domains and their budgets, Trump’s EPA boss did the opposite on Capitol Hill at a hearing Thursday before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he defended Trump’s proposed reductions.
Congressional Democrats accused Wheeler of hypocrisy as he avowed his support for a wide array of environmental programs and simultaneously asked that they lose financial resources.
“Do you believe this budget prepares our nation to deal with the environmental and public health threats that we can expect during the next 50 years?” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) asked Wheeler, noting that the agency established by President Richard Nixon in 1970 turns 50 this year.
“Yes I do,” Wheeler replied. “We are returning to the basics of the agency, focusing on air, land and water.” Wheeler and his predecessor, former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, have stressed that they intend to reconfigure the agency to focus more on issues like air and water pollution while rolling back many of the Obama administration’s attempts to tackle climate change through EPA regulations.
Tonko noted that EPA’s budget documents contained “essentially zero mentions of the words climate change or carbon dioxide.” In two instances where climate was mentioned, it was to describe things that the administration wanted on the chopping block: a climate science program and voluntary partnerships aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Wheeler said that the agency is indeed working to address climate change, pointing to the agency’s rules to regulate emissions from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas operations. But each of the administration’s efforts on those fronts have sought to weaken climate standards put forth by the Obama administration.
Tonko pressed Wheeler on whether the agency’s actions would curb emissions “at the pace that the scientific community says is necessary — or even less ambitious than that — at the pace to achieve United States commitments under the Paris agreement?”
Trump announced shortly after taking office that he intended to pull the United States out of the landmark global climate accord.
Wheeler pointed to Trump’s Paris withdrawal and said the agency was working within its legal authority to tackle climate change. Critics of the Obama administration argued that it had overstepped its bounds, particularly with its regulation to curb emissions from power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan. The Trump team scrapped that rule.
“Excluding climate from the budget, eliminating research and voluntary industry partnership programs and weakening modest existing rules — which has happened — does not give me any indication that the agency is taking this environmental threat seriously,” Tonko said.
Prior to being hired for the Trump EPA, Wheeler was a coal industry lobbyist. He previously worked for Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who was long known as the Senate’s most vocal skeptic of climate change. Wheeler was also previously a career staffer at EPA during the 1990s, when he worked in the agency’s toxics office.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, grilled Wheeler Thursday on his plans to cut funding for the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, which shows the public when industries are emitting toxic chemicals into the environment.
Blunt Rochester called the database an essential tool for communities to find out about the releases of harmful chemicals. “Because of this, I’m concerned that you have proposed cutting the budget for TRI by a third,” she told Wheeler.
Wheeler said he fully supports the program and believes it would continue even under the proposed cuts.
Blunt Rochester was skeptical. “So you fully support it, but cut it by a third?” she said.
Wheeler defended a range of cuts throughout the hearing, repeating that the administration had to make a lot of “hard decisions” to try to get a balanced budget.
Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette pressed the EPA chief on an October 2019 letter from EPA’s Office of Inspector General to members of Congress citing “open defiance” by Wheeler’s then chief of staff during an ongoing investigation by the agency’s internal watchdog office.
DeGette asked Wheeler to confirm that he expects all EPA staff to cooperate with the agency’s inspector general and that he would not obstruct the office’s investigations, which he did.