EPA faces third straight year of cuts

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President Obama’s environmental agenda, under political attack and on the back burner in a sluggish economy, will face budget cuts for the third straight year.

The proposed Environmental Protection Agency budget for fiscal year 2013 is $8.3 billion, down from $9.0 billion last year. This year’s request represents a 1.2 percent decrease, or $105 million, from the 2012 enacted level.

Tellingly, EPA’s budget barely acknowledges the agency’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants -- a stark reversal from last year’s budget, which said EPA’s “measured, common-sense steps to address greenhouse gas pollution” was one of its “funding points of focus.”

Instead, this year’s budget says the administration “continues to support greenhouse gas emissions reduction in the U.S. in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.”  Those have been the goals for addressing climate change since the beginning of the Obama administration, but no legislation has been enacted requiring the reductions to be achieved.

The only mention EPA's greenhouse gas rules for power plants receives in this year's budget is one sentence that doesn't say anything about when the rules are coming. "EPA will continue to develop regulatory strategies to control GHG emissions from major stationary sources."

The EPA budget does acknowledge one program already on the books that can help reduce greenhouse gases: the increased fuel-economy standards for vehicles that the administration worked out with the auto industry last year.  The budget “supports the 2012 implementation of a historic national program to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) from cars and trucks by about 21 percent by 2030, saving an estimated 1.8 billion barrels of oil,” the proposal from EPA states.

Rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants have been pending at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for regulatory review since early November, longer than the normal review time. EPA had said the rules would come out by the end of January. But election-year politics are quickly taking over, and experts predict the White House will keep the rules in the draft stages for awhile.

Proposed cuts in EPA’s budget include $359 million in State Revolving Funds for water projects, “in part because of the continuing constrained fiscal environment; $33 million to the agency’s hazardous substance Superfund account; and $50 million by eliminating “outdated, underperforming and overlapping programs,” which includes certain grant programs and the Clean Automotive Technologies program.

The areas the budget proposes to increase funding are scarce. EPA asks for $15 million more to help restore the Chesapeake Bay, up from the $67.4 million it requested in its FY2012 budget. EPA requests $1.2 billion in grants to support state and tribal efforts to implement environmental programs, the same as last year’s proposal.

In a sign of shifting priorities, Obama’s $8.3 billion budget request for FY2013 is closer to the last budget proposed under the George W. Bush administration than it is to what Obama proposed his first year in office. In 2009 he proposed a 26 percent increase in EPA’s budget: Up to $10.3 billion from $7.6 billion under Bush.

While it is very unlikely to emerge from Congress unscathed, the administration’s EPA budget proposal is an important blueprint for Obama’s priorities, and the continued cuts EPA is facing shows the president’s priorities have shifted away from the agency.

House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said his panel will likely scrutinize EPA grants. “Seldom do we really look at these grant programs,” Whitfield said late last week at a briefing. “When I go to my district people still primarily talk about the debt we have.… We don’t have any idea how much money is going out to these grants, no idea where these grants are going.”

Last year House Republicans passed numerous bills to delay or nullify many EPA regulations only to see them die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But EPA’s budget proposal provides an opening for a new round of attacks.

“EPA will come in on its budget, so that’ll give us a chance to address whatever issues we want and look at their budget and see how that is helpful or harmful,” House Environment and Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said recently.

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