State Clean Air Agencies Lose $112 Million in EPA Budget-Cutting

Already-underfunded clean air bureaus are set to lose millions, according to figures from the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Can they cope?

Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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WASHINGTON—Those conducting triage on the gimpy EPA budget that limped out of the U.S. Capitol in mid-April describe the results this way: House Republicans might not have landed the gigantic bite they initially sought, but they still managed to launch their share of substantial licks.

In sum, the fiscal 2011 spending measure — passed at the eleventh hour to fund the government through September and avoid an ugly shutdown — whacks $1.6 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency.

And while it doesn’t contain the draconian riders that would have prevented the agency from curbing any heat-trapping gases at all, it does slice away millions of dollars in grants that are the lifeblood for clean air bureaus at the state level.

How will local agencies cope with this pared-down reality?

“This is the $100 million question,” Bill Becker, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told SolveClimate News in an interview.

“The requirements don’t go away, nor are we suggesting they do go away. The idea of increasing permit fees in this economic climate is an extraordinarily unpopular action for most states. What we have to continue to do is accomplish more with less.”

How the Numbers Break Down

“Overall, what we have been saying is that the 2011 continuing resolution cut over $100 million in appropriated or anticipated funds that would help states and localities implement greenhouse gas and other Clean Air Act-related activities,” Becker said about his organization’s calculations.

In total, $112.5 million was lopped. That includes $82.5 million that President Obama initially requested in his 2011 budget and a separate $30 million that had already been appropriated by Congress in 2010, according to numbers compiled by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

Obama’s idea was to divide up the $82.5 million among the states this way: $25 million to set up a permitting infrastructure for monitoring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; $40 million for carrying out core programs such as “state implementation plans,” inventories, enforcement, inspections that aren’t linked directly to greenhouse gas permitting; and $17.5 million to augment monitoring networks.

Two-thirds of the $30 million from 2010 was geared to help severely polluted regions meet fine particulate and ozone requirements. The remaining $10 million was designated for greenhouse gas emissions projects among communities.

“State and local agencies are woefully underfunded and Obama recognized that,” Becker said, adding that ideally, EPA should be funding 60 percent — not just 25 percent — of what states spend controlling air pollution.

“Given the terrible economic times we’re facing, state and local bodies are loathe to pick up the slack.”

$25 Million for Carbon Emissions Vanishes

The $25 million mentioned above was supposed to help states and local agencies comply with EPA’s greenhouse gas tailoring rule, which kicked in Jan. 2.

The first phase is geared for new or modified power plants, cement producers or other facilities with large carbon footprints. It requires states to determine if these stationary emitters can qualify for federal permits.

“Fortunately, in the first four months of the tailoring rule, states haven’t been flooded with a large number of permits,” Becker said. “On average, it’s maybe one or two per agency. But even with that, complying with [Best Available Control Technology] takes a significant amount of time.”

Tailoring act trackers attribute the low number of permits thus far to at least three factors. One, state economies are still in the dumps. Two, some states experienced a bit of an end-of-the-year permitting rush to beat the Jan. 2 deadline. And three, some companies might be hanging on to their permit applications while waiting to see if and how Congress intervenes.

Agencies are in a pinch because most states are reluctant to boost permit fees during these cash-strapped times and most state legislatures are slashing rather than enhancing environmental budgets.

“They’re trying to be smarter and better in their implementation activities,” Becker said. “But that only goes so far.”

Treading Water in South Carolina

Myra Reece seems to channel Becker’s insights from her office hundreds of miles away in Columbia, S.C.

As chief of the Bureau of Air Quality, part of South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, she is juggling a slew of staff vacancies, state legislators with no money to spare for environmental imperatives and a long line of jittery permit applicants.

“These are definitely unique and challenging times,” Reece told SolveClimate News in an interview. “All the challenges that we usually have are being magnified.”

In a normal year, Reece explained, her bureau would expect to handle about nine “prevention of significant deterioration,” or PSD permit applications. Per requirements of the Clean Air Act, these permits are designed to protect air quality and now include a long list of pollutants, including heat-trapping gases.

Thus far this year, she said, no such permit applications have crossed her desk even though she’s expecting one or two to arrive within the next few months. Also, she’s aware of at least 13 companies preparing applications for phase 2 of the tailoring rule, which begins July 1.

Some potential applicants are hesitating because they want to be sure their complicated computer modeling formulas for emissions are correct. Others are unsure where they stand now that EPA officials have delayed regulations on power plants or other large emitters fueled with biomass for three years. As is the case in much of the Southeast, South Carolina expects to rely heavily on biomass to fulfill its share of a renewable energy standard.

Lack of staff, money and certainty, Reece said, is forcing bureau introspection.

“We’re talking to EPA as a region and telling them we can’t do everything,” she said. “It’s important for us to prioritize and operate as efficiently as we can.”

“We have no choice but to go through with the permitting process but all of this will prolong it,” she continued.

As her workplace is required to meet more and more Clean Air Act standards with less and less money, Reece speculates that transitioning to a “multi-pollutant approach” would be reasonable.

“The process is as important as the money,” she explained. “We need a holistic approach instead of looking at each pollutant in a silo. When you manage pollutant by pollutant, for instance, you might help greenhouse gas emissions but increase another pollutant. The most bang for your buck comes from a multi-pollutant approach.”

What Else Included in the $1.6 Billion Reduction?

Last year, when Democrats had a majority in both chambers, they opted to punt by funding government at 2010 levels instead of passing a fiscal 2011 budget. In 2010, EPA’s budget of $10.3 billion was the agency’s flushest year ever.

Earlier this year, House Republicans — led by vociferous tea party members with an anti-regulatory bent who are obsessed with reducing a federal deficit tipping toward $1.4 trillion — initially had designs on squeezing $61 billion from the entire 2011 budget.

Language in the GOP-led, mid-February bill included lancing EPA’s allotted dollars by close to one-third. That $3 billion represented the largest single cut to any single federal agency.

After the Senate balked, leaders from both chambers engaged in a series of less-than-artful negotiating sessions to produce several stopgap funding measures. Then, late on the evening of April 8, they agreed to slim down spending by $38 billion through the five-plus months remaining in this fiscal year.

Just before exiting the nation’s capital for a two-week spring recess, representatives and senators signed off on the measure April 14. That’s the deal that shrank the EPA budget by $1.6 billion, or about 16 percent, to a total of $8.7 billion.

Cuts connected to Clean Air Act-related functions made up a relatively small portion of that figure. Overall, Congress pared $1.19 billion from what’s known as State and Tribal Assistance. The bulk of that — $997 million — was sliced away from two revolving funds that grant states money to clean up polluted water bodies and upgrade and repair wastewater treatment plants and drinking water facilities.

Overall, grants that help states and local agencies comply with federal mandates now make up close to half of that new $8.7 billion budget figure.

Other EPA programs that went under the knife include regional environmental initiatives, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, science and technology programs and Superfund, with trims of about $191 million, $149 million, $31 million and $23 million, respectively.

Back in March, Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection predicted in an interview with SolveClimate News that the most drastic shearing of EPA’s budget would fall to the cutting room floor by April.

He was correct on that front but is still disappointed about the $112 million in Clean Air Act-related reductions that survived because it puts an extra burden on states and local agencies.

“EPA took a couple of kicks to the shins for the rest of 2011,” said DiPeso, vice president for policy and communications.  “Even though the agency took some scrapes, it could have been a lot worse. But it’s temporary because all of these issues will come up again.”

2012 Budget to be “Knock-Down, Drag-Out”

Next week, after spending two weeks scattered across the country listening to their constituents, legislators return to face 2012 budget negotiations.

House members started the hullaballoo early by endorsing a $3.5 trillion measure presented by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. Not surprisingly, the 235-193 vote on April 15 split mostly along partisan lines, though four Republicans joined the Democratic minority.

“The continuing resolution was the warm-up act for the main event,” DiPeso said. “The 2012 budget is going to be the big show. It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out.”

Why? Mainly because philosophical differences have created a chasm between the two main parties about the role federal government should play in people’s lives.

Debate on a budget that’s supposed to be in place by Oct. 1 will be exacerbated by Congress weighing in on a request to raise the ceiling on the nation’s debt limit so the U.S. Treasury can cover the country’s expenses without defaulting.

No doubt, the country is shouldering its share of financial burdens, DiPeso said. But he expects the squawking that will erupt from the far right during this back-and-forth will make it sound as if the United States is an “oversize banana republic” teetering on the edge of the insolvency abyss.

Once the talk turns to actual budget figures, he expects certain GOP legislators to continue to have an ideological bee in their bonnets when it comes to funding for both EPA and the Department of Energy.

“For many Republicans, EPA is the troll under the bridge,” said DiPeso, referring to a popular children’s story involving billy goats and fear. “They see it as an agency determined to grab businesses by the throat and squeeze out all the jobs they can. To them, EPA is tramping around the country in search of jobs to destroy.”

GOP Ideologues at the Forefront

It is eternally frustrating to watch and listen as Republican ideologues tear down the pillars of sustainability that his nonprofit is built upon, DiPeso said.

He fears the GOP will once again try to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas pollutants. Already, in Ryan’s budget proposal he sees hints that Republicans are aiming to kill DOE’s efforts to fund applied research and development on emerging technologies.

In addition, he tires of explaining how regulations on the environmental front are financial bargains when compared to the rest of the budget.

“Even if you threw all of the EPA into the dust bin it’s not going to make a dent in the deficit,” DiPeso said. “But that doesn’t matter when some Republicans have an ingrained ideological hostility to anything that has to do with being good stewards of our natural resources.”

In the meantime, Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies is hopeful that states have the wherewithal to cobble together the resources they need to process Clean Air Act permits before the fiscal year plays out this autumn.

“It’s very fair to say that these cuts, many of which are going into the backbone of these agencies, are preventing agencies from protecting public health and welfare,” Becker said.

“When you have less resources, including fewer pollution control cops, it means more sources are out of compliance and more pollution comes into the atmosphere.”