With Programs in Peril, Climate and Environmental Science Advocates Gird for a Fight

In what amounts to a game of Whac-A-Mole for supporters of climate and other scientific research, lawmakers keen to preserve major federal programs are girding for a tough slog. President Trump, after all, is proposing massive cuts to big, national-level environmental programs, and Republicans in Congress are mostly on board — so long as he keeps his hands off popular local- and state-level programs in their districts.

Where science and policy collide

This has supporters of those national level programs scrambling to find ways to preserve them — and it will prove a tall order.

The skirmishes will begin in earnest Thursday when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt heads to the Capitol to defend his agency’s budget proposal at a House hearing. The White House wants to slash EPA spending 31 percent — more than any other agency — in fiscal year 2018, and such cuts will likely find a friendly audience in the Republican-controlled chamber. Similar downsizing has been proposed for federal environmental initiatives across the government, with everything from educating people about how to remove lead from homes to collecting greenhouse gas emission data from big polluters now in jeopardy.

Republicans view these sorts of national-level environmental programs, especially ones related to climate change, as examples of “big government,” and they are viewed less favorably than local and regional efforts in lawmakers’ own home districts — even if they also receive federal funds.

“I think from a regulatory standpoint we’re very pleased with what the White House has been doing,” Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters Tuesday. “Lot of support certainly for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, what have you, and I think people are very pleased with Scott Pruitt’s performance over there.”

Such sentiments — along with Trump’s willingness to open budget negotiations with drastic cuts — have environmental advocates hoping to settle for a mere kneecapping rather than a full-fledged amputation. George Wyeth, a former EPA attorney, said outside groups are focusing on preserving national programs that lack support from Republicans.

“That I think is a very big concern and to some extent I think that is where we are putting our greatest effort,” Wyeth, who is working with other former EPA staffers in the recently formed Environmental Protection Network, told reporters this week. “Those things are harder to explain and harder to communicate what the impacts will be.”

The Trump administration already has signaled its intent to eliminate both the nation’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program and satellite-based climate research. In March, the EPA announced it would no longer require oil and gas drillers to submit emissions data on methane, a potent, but short-lived heat-trapping gas. The sector accounts for 3 percent of annual methane emissions, according to the EPA.

The EPA and the White House did not respond to requests for comment about how these budget matters or Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord would affect sharing information with the public.

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the EPA budget, said preserving national programs will be a challenge. “I’m going to work at it,” he said in a recent interview. “That one will be tougher, I think,” referring to the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.

One somewhat unexpected result of the proposed cuts is that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are more attuned to threats to programs in their backyards, said Sally Ericsson, a former White House environmental official in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Republicans like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have blasted the Trump administration for suggesting shuttering the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Even Don Young, a mercurial Alaska congressman who’s skeptical of climate change, urged the White House to maintain funding for Interior Department climate change and adaptation centers based in his state and elsewhere.

“The area that will probably get the biggest scrutiny is, ‘Are the cuts too deep?’” Cole, the Oklahoma Republican, said of the EPA. “They still have an important mission to carry. Quite a bit of their budget are grants to state, local and tribal governments. I think there’s going to be an effort to make sure they have enough funds.”

Zack Colman, a former fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written about energy and environment for a variety of publications, including The Atlantic, High Country News, and The Washington Examiner. Most recently he was deputy energy and environment editor with The Christian Science Monitor.