Lawmakers press Wheeler on spending cuts, climate change

Source: Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2019

Democratic senators today pressed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler about President Trump’s proposal for drastic budget cuts at his agency.

Wheeler testified this morning before the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

He had to defend the White House fiscal 2020 budget for EPA, which would give the agency about $6.1 billion, slashing nearly a third of its current funds at roughly $8.8 billion.

The EPA chief was also questioned about declining staffing at the agency as well as proposals to curtail various environmental regulations.

In his opening statement, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said he was relieved that Wheeler’s predecessor, Scott Pruitt, is “no longer dominating the news cycle with daily scandals. But the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a change in terms of policy.”

The New Mexico senator noted that the administration has proposed deep cuts in past EPA budgets only to be rejected by Congress, which has kept level funding for the agency in recent years.

Udall said he was tired of the gamesmanship and made reference to Trump’s announcement at a Michigan campaign rally last week that he would fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative after his budget plan proposed to cut it by 90 percent.

Wheeler has said he agrees with the president’s remarks and EPA is working with the Office of Management and Budget to amend its budget plan.

“It’s a wink and the nod that the budget request isn’t really real. But that, I submit to you, makes a mockery of the process. Budgets are statements of policy priorities,” Udall said, saying Trump’s budget plan shows the administration favors industry over the environment. “There is no wink or nod — or announcement at a rally — that can undo that.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the subcommittee’s chairwoman, thanked Wheeler for returning EPA to its basic functions but also said she found the Trump budget plan would not match up with the administration’s goals for the agency. She said the agency’s final budget will look different from the president’s request.

“While I appreciate this budget’s recognition of numerous programs that do have bipartisan support, many of the reductions would, in my view, be inconsistent with some of the back-to-basics approach I just mentioned,” Murkowski said.

Wheeler, in his opening statement, emphasized the administration’s deregulatory work at EPA as well as its support of water infrastructure and a new proposed Healthy School Grants program with $50 million in funding.

The EPA administrator said the administration is proving that economic growth and environmental protection can go hand in hand.

Asbestos, climate

Wheeler was often pushed by Democratic senators to take quicker action on priorities. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) asked when EPA would finalize its risk evaluation for asbestos, which has plagued residents of Libby in his state, by the end of this year. Wheeler said that was EPA’s goal.

“We have got people dying from this, OK? And it’s not a pleasant death. Why is it out there?” Tester said.

Wheeler said EPA’s goal is to finish the evaluation by the end of this year, but he said he didn’t want to “prejudge” the assessment. Tester argued that the material should be off the market given its deadly effects.

“If it’s rock-solid, we will move quickly to pull it off the market,” Wheeler said.

Senators also had questions over EPA’s work on climate change. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) reminded Wheeler that during his confirmation hearing to be EPA administrator, Wheeler told him that climate change ranked as eight or nine out of 10 as a concern for him.

“If you have a high level of concern, how come you are cutting funding for key climate programs?” Merkley said.

Wheeler pointed to new proposed rules to replace Obama-era regulations to lower carbon emissions from power plants and vehicles. Merkley said those new rules would lead to increased carbon pollution.

Udall noted that EPA as part of its enforcement function is performing fewer inspections and under Trump’s budget would cut funding for state agencies that would have to pick up the slack.

Wheeler countered by saying that EPA is focusing on areas that are not in line with environmental standards and that the number of criminal cases started by the agency rose last year.

“We are focusing on compliance and audits at the beginning of the process, but we are making sure that if people are violating the law, we are taking action, including criminal action against them,” Wheeler said.

Staffing, vacancies

Udall confronted Wheeler on staffing. Hundreds of employees have left the agency under the Trump administration.

The ranking member said EPA has the funding in place to hire their replacements, given that lawmakers have rejected proposed budget cuts for the agency, but has not done so.

“I see this as an intentional effort to cripple the EPA so badly, effects will last well past this administration,” Udall said.

Wheeler acknowledged that it is a challenge for the agency. He noted that 40 percent of EPA staff members are eligible to retire. In addition, he said, sometimes staffing surges fail to come through.

Wheeler said EPA hired 30 people last year to work on Toxic Substances Control Act issues, but 30 people left during that time period.

“My main concern is we have the right expertise,” Wheeler said.

At times during this hearing, the EPA administrator lamented how arduous the Senate confirmation process has been to fill out political leadership at the agency.

Wheeler said he hopes EPA will have the head of its land and emergency response office in place before the next hurricane season hits, given that he was first nominated for the job nearly 400 days ago.

In addition, Wheeler said prospects have turned down the chance to join EPA, given the length of the confirmation process, acknowledging that its research office also does not have a Senate-confirmed head.

“We have had a hard time of filling positions because people look at how long the process takes, and they have told us no,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s testimony this morning was his second hearing this week, after he appeared before the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee yesterday.

He will also be back on Capitol Hill next week. The EPA administrator is slated to testify about Trump’s budget request before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change on Tuesday.