Back to the future: EPA’s proposed budget lowest since 1976

The President's proposed budget, released this morning, proposes cutting the EPA's budget to inflation-adjusted 1976 levels.

Nadia Comaneci was landing three perfect scores in the Winter Olympics. Gerald Ford had just taken office. Rocky first bounded up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as we watched him in our theaters. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared to celebrate its sixth birthday.

At the time, its budget was $771,695,000 and it employed 9,481 people. If President Donald J. Trump has his way in the new budget he revealed this morning, the agency’s funding will return to that level, adjusted for inflation.

Trump released what is called his “skinny budget” this morning – essentially a laundry list of requested budget items that first-term administrations submit early in their terms. A full budget, replete with the devil’s details, will be released later this spring. But the first draft, at least for the EPA, could all but eliminate its ability to function in any real capacity.

The budget proposes would slash the current $8.2 billion budget to $5.7 billion – a 31% reduction in funds. Though no specific programs are mentioned in today’s document, the cuts appear in line with the aims expressed by new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s anti-Climate Change agenda. As pv magazine reported, Pruitt denies the scientific consensus on man-made Climate Change and has repeatedly sued the EPA to block regulation of power plants.

He has also sued the EPA to block the cross-state air pollution rule, mercury and air toxin regulations, joined Texas’ suit to block the Clean Power Plan, and even sued EPA on the bizarre allegation that it was encouraging environmental groups to sue states to force them to comply with EPA regulations.

But in what must have been a Lewis Carroll-esque Through the Looking Glass moment for Pruitt, he reportedly went to the White House and begged Trump to make smaller cuts to the agency. The New York Times reported that Pruitt asked Trump, who originally proposed cutting the EPA budget to $6 billion, to provide him a budget of $7 billion. In response, Trump cut $300 million more from the budget, leading to the number cited in today’s budget release.

The overall effect of these draconian cuts is unclear. While President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan is clearly dead, that has never been a central component of solar’s success or failure in the U.S. energy mix. As pv magazine has noted, solar’s success or failure will depend far more heavily on state-level renewable portfolio standards, state-level net metering policies, and increasingly by voluntary procurement and PURPA, a federal law which is implemented at the state level. After all, the EPA’s rules and regulations do not affect the U.S. Investment Tax Credit (ITC), the most important federal policy for solar, which received an extension in 2015 for seven more years.

Trump’s proposed gutting of the EPA comes the same week that he signed an Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch, which requires the directors of all federal agencies, including the EPA, to submit a”proposed plan to reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency” to the Office of Management and Budget. The plans, which must be submitted by Sept. 9, can include any plans, up-to and including eliminating the agency entirely.

In the current climate, with hostility toward the EPA at an all-time high among legislators and led by an administrator who may not support the agency’s mission 100%, it will be instructive to see how the required review progresses.