Lawmakers concerned about curbing pollution and a warming planet gave a cool reception to President Donald Trump's environmental chief on Thursday as he defended the administration's proposal to sharply reduce the budget of his own agency.
Scott Pruitt, the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee as it weighs Trump's budget, which seeks to slash funding at the agency by nearly one-third while eliminating more than 3,800 jobs.
Pruitt pitched the president's spending plan as part of his agenda to take EPA "back to basics." He promised new levels of bureaucratic efficiency and engagement with states.
"The president's budget aims to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies, and prioritize EPA's core statutory mission of providing Americans with clean air, land and water," Pruitt said. "EPA can accomplish a lot when the agency focuses on working co-operatively with the states and tribes to improve health and the environment."
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Pruitt provided few specific or concrete details about how he planned to deliver better environmental protection with fewer resources. Committee members from both parties suggested Trump is trying to shift more costs for environmental enforcement to cash-strapped state governments, pressing Pruitt about cuts to environmental programs affecting their home districts.
Lowest funding in decades
Rep. Ken Calvert, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, introduced Pruitt at the start of the meeting with the blunt assessment that Congress is "unlikely to entertain" many of the cuts proposed by the White House.
"This may not be how you would personally craft EPA's budget, but it is the budget you are here to defend," said Calvert, a California Republican, commiserating with Pruitt.
Other GOP members tried to distance the president from his own administration's spending plan, calling it the "Mulvaney Budget," a reference to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
Democrats were less charitable, borrowing one of the president's favourite adjectives from the campaign trail to label his budget a "disaster."
The White House's proposed spending plan for the EPA amounts to $5.7 billion, a 31 per cent cut from the current budget year. Adjusted for inflation, that would represent the nation's lowest funding for environmental protection since the mid-1970s. It also makes deep cuts to science and enforcement efforts, including the complete elimination of nearly 50 offices and programs.
Pruitt has repeatedly said one of his top priorities will be cleaning up toxic waste sites, yet the administration's budget cuts federal funding for Superfund by $330 million, to about $762 million. Current spending for Superfund is already down to about half of what it was in the 1990s.
While some Republicans on the committee cheered Pruitt's efforts to curtail the "culture of overreach" at EPA, Calvert and others expressed their concern over the proposed elimination of regional programs co-ordinating the protection of large water bodies, such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound.
Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said Pruitt's claims that cleaner air and water would come from a leaner EPA were built on wishful thinking.
"I can wish for a lot of things, but eventually I have to figure out how to make that happen with real people and real dollars," said McCollum, D-Minn. She described the budget as an expression of Trump and Pruitt's denial that climate change is a serious problem that requires immediate action.
Questioning climate change
Earlier this month, Trump announced he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. The agreement signed by 195 nations in 2015 aims to decrease global carbon emissions in an effort to head off the worst predicted effects of global warming, including worsening storms, catastrophic droughts and city-drowning sea level rise.
Pruitt has also moved to roll back or delay numerous Obama-era programs to cut pollution from mining operations, oil and gas wells and coal-fired power plants.
Like Trump, Pruitt concedes that global warming is occurring and that man-made carbon emissions are having some impact, though he claims that is difficult to measure. But he decries as "alarmist" the view that climate change is a serious threat.
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree recounted how she often sees fear in the eyes of lobster fishermen back in her home state of Maine as their livelihood migrates north in search of colder waters.
"The oceans are warming," Pingree said. "I can't go home to my people and say this isn't happening, don't worry about it, it's going to go away. ... What are we going to say to our grandchildren if we do nothing."
Pruitt responded by saying he and the president want to continue "engagement" with international partners on climate change, praising the "progress" on reducing carbon emissions even as he champions the continued burning of fossil fuels.