Majority of U.S. states slashed environmental budgets over past decade, new study finds

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, December 9, 2019

Petrochemical refineries dot the morning sky along the Houston ship channel. (F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg)

The Trump administration has promised to give individual states more power to set their own strategies for curbing air and water pollution.

But states may not be up to the job: A whopping 30 states have cut their environmental budgets over the past decade, a new study found.

And it’s raising concerns among environmental advocates about whether states have enough resources to stop polluters.

“The bottom line is it’s past time to give both the U.S. EPA and state agencies the resources they need to enforce our environmental laws,” said Eric Schaeffer, head and co-founder of the Environmental Integrity Project, which conducted the analysis of anti-pollution programs in the Lower 48 states published late last week.

Half of all U.S. states cut their budgets for environmental programs by more than 10 percent when adjusted for inflation between 2008 to 2018, the study found. During that decade-long stretch, state environmental protection agencies shed more than 4,400 jobs. The analysis only looked at state-level programs combatting pollution, and did not include those that manage wildlife or state parks.

In Pennsylvania, during a decade of growth in natural gas production in the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania, state officials slashed funding for pollution control efforts by 16 percent even as the overall state budget grew by 18 percent.

And in Texas, which saw a similar boom in oil and gas extraction in the Permian Basin in the western half of the state, lawmakers cut funding at its Commission of Environmental Quality by 35 percent even as overall state spending grew by 41 percent.

“I knew there had been some cuts, but even I was alarmed to see” the report, said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.

The findings are especially significant given leaders at the federal Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump have said they want to grant states more enforcement responsibilities and then support them when needed.

Environmental advocates have argued that shifting responsibility to the state amounts to a retreat on pollution prevention, but Trump officials refer to this concept as “cooperative federalism.”

“Cooperative federalism is a cornerstone of the administrator’s approach,” Andrew Wheeler said during his 2017 nomination hearing to become the EPA’s second-ranking officer under then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (Wheeler became agency head after Pruitt stepped down the following year.) “We must work cooperatively with the states to ensure that the environment and public health are both protected.”

When asked about the cuts to state environmental spending, the EPA said in a statement that it is “fully committed to fulfilling our mission of protecting human health and the environment and working closely with our state, local, and tribal partners.”

The cuts came as many states fell under Republican control after the tea-party wave election of 2010. The steepest decline in environmental funding occurred in Wisconsin under the budgetary knife of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was first elected that year.

But blue states were not spared as lawmakers sought to tighten belts after the Great Recession. New York cuts its environmental spending by nearly a third over the decade, while Illinois slashed funding for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency by a quarter over that same period.

“Clearly, the recession had some impact,” said Schaeffer, who previously served as director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement. “Interestingly, for some states, because of the federal stimulus package, there was actually a flood of money in 2010-11.”

One of the few states to significantly increasing its environmental spending since 2008 was California. The nation’s most populous state almost doubled funding for the California Environmental Protection Agency over the decade, from $2.4 billion to $4.2 billion, to both implement a new recycling law and launch a cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But when it comes to California specifically, the Trump administration has been less keen on protecting states’ rights. It’s been more interested in asserting federal supremacy rather than allowing the big blue state to pursue pollution standards more aggressive than those of the federal government.

In September, the EPA revoked California’s long-standing authority to set stricter air pollution standards for cars and light trucks. The agency has even accused California of “failing to meet its obligations” to protect the environment because of the large homeless populations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“It’s a terrible situation — that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that month.

“They have to clean it up,” he added. “We can’t have our cities going to hell.”