EPA faces ‘difficult choices’ with budget cut

By Kevin Bogardus | 06/20/2024 01:39 PM EDT

A new operating plan details how the agency hopes to contain the damage from slashed funding.

EPA headquarters.

EPA headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/POLITICO

EPA will keep staffing levels on track despite Capitol Hill’s whack to the agency’s core budget.

The agency’s fiscal 2024 operating plan shows EPA’s hiring goal for its base appropriations remained over 15,000 employees, rising slightly compared to the prior year’s target, as President Joe Biden has pushed to grow the agency to handle the mounting workload from his signature climate and infrastructure laws.

His administration’s aspirations for EPA, however, have collided with the Republican-led House, which has already slashed the agency’s resources and plans to do so again in upcoming spending legislation.


The agency has managed to make do with less, according to Stan Meiburg, who served 39 years at EPA, including as acting deputy administrator during the Obama administration.

“I will say that as with everybody else a level budget is, in fact, a cut because of inflation and extra costs,” said Meiburg, now executive director of Wake Forest University’s Sabin Center for Environment and Sustainability. “But the effort in terms of nominal numbers appears to have been to keep the agency’s budget at pretty much the same level it was in 2023.”

The push to keep EPA intact was tough.

The agency will receive close to $9.2 billion in fiscal 2024 for its annual budget, almost a $1 billion reduction from the previous year. Though much of that cut landed on the Superfund program, which is receiving support again from reinstated “polluter pays” taxes, other agency accounts had to be decreased.

“The FY 2024 appropriations required difficult choices to allocate resources across both payroll for the workforce and non-pay that supports program work,” said the operating plan, which was obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.

Consequentially, EPA’s two primary operating accounts — Environmental Programs and Management, and Science and Technology — “are reduced in both non-pay resources and full time equivalents to try to balance these tradeoffs.”

Full-time equivalents, or FTEs, are the hours a full-time employee works each year, so one FTE is about 2,080 work hours.

EPA spokesperson Remmington Belford said fiscal 2024 funding dropped the agency’s environmental program account by $108 million and the science account by $44 million compared to their fiscal 2023 levels.

“This required difficult choices to allocate funds within a lower resource level,” Belford said.

Susan Bodine, who led EPA’s solid waste and enforcement offices during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, respectively, said the agency had a delicate task: match pay raises for federal employees, which have been historically high under the Biden administration, while keeping its operations on pace.

“It’s very difficult for any federal agency to then figure out how to meet payroll, and then keep everything else going,” said Bodine, now a partner at Earth & Water Law. “To pay for your people who do the work, you’re cutting away from the support that helps them do their work.”

No layoffs planned

EPA prepared for some belt-tightening after lawmakers passed a smaller budget for the agency earlier this year.

“I am confident that we have a firm path forward and that we can develop a plan that will allow EPA to advance the Administration’s priorities,” Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told staff in a March 11 email.

The agency later laid out its targets for full-time equivalents in its operating plan, dated May 6. EPA’s hiring ceiling this fiscal year is about 15,130 FTEs overall, just above the 15,115 detailed in the previous year’s operating plan.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for EPA to reach those staffing ceilings. Employees come and go, especially when the agency’s workforce tends to be older.

Meiburg compared it to trying to fill a bathtub with its faucet on full while its drain remains open.

“You’re doing this at the same time that the agency continues to have a fair amount of turnover because people who are my age are retiring,” Meiburg said.

EPA’s largest union, American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, has pushed for more staffing, saying the agency needs 20,000 employees in a recent briefing paper. But such an expansion appears unlikely on EPA’s smaller core budget.

Joyce Howell, executive vice president for the council, said the union supports EPA leadership’s efforts to maintain FTE targets for fiscal 2024 despite the agency’s budget cuts.

“Climate change requires an ‘all hands on deck’ response, and we support EPA’s efforts to maintain staffing levels of the hardworking and highly skilled workforce AFGE Council 238 represents,” Howell said.

Program offices kept similar staffing goals from fiscal 2023 to fiscal 2024, although there are minor declines for some in the latter year. The administrator’s office as well as the air, chemicals and solid waste programs are among those with lower FTE targets.

One smaller office at EPA has indicated it may have to pare down staffing because of decreased appropriations. The Office of Pesticide Programs will need to reduce the size of its office by as many as 30 full-time equivalents or cut its contract support, according to a report to Congress released last month.

Yet despite lower hiring goals and less funding, the agency is not proposing to do layoffs — otherwise known to the federal workforce as a reduction in force, or RIF.

Belford with EPA said, “The agency has no plans for RIFs.”

Superfund taxes start to roll in

EPA has other funding sources to draw on that have boosted its hiring.

The agency is set to receive over $100 billion in the coming years from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act combined. Many of those dollars will flow out via new grant programs but some have backed more staffing at EPA too.

The agency currently has 16,196 onboard employees from its funding authorities, which include base appropriations and fee programs as well as the 2021 infrastructure law and 2022 climate law, according to Belford, the EPA spokesperson.

In addition, McCabe told agency employees in her email that most of the fiscal 2024 budget cut was to the Superfund program “where new tax collections are intended to help us offset the reductions and maintain our progress.”

Those taxes have started to roll in.

Almost $745 million in Superfund tax receipts have been allocated for enforcement and cleanup work as part of the operating plan. Further, the agency estimates another $696.2 million remains available from fiscal 2023 tax collections.

Belford with EPA said, “The agency is allocating the remaining funds to advance [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act] work and will provide the final spend plan to Congress when it is completed.”

The tax receipts may be falling short of projections but still add some new oomph to the agency’s bottom line.

“If the agency is down slightly outside of Superfund, they still have a great deal of money,” Bodine said.

Reprogramming request to ‘mitigate impacts’

Nevertheless, the fiscal 2024 budget cut is affecting the agency. EPA has asked lawmakers if it can reprogram $5 million of various funds “to mitigate impacts of the appropriations reductions,” according to the operating plan.

In that request, $2 million would be shifted to chemical reviews, leading to more approvals and protections from toxic compounds. Another $2 million would back “critical legal work” as the workload for the general counsel’s office has outpaced resources.

In addition, $750,000 would be for EPA to meet the United States’ commitments under the North America Commission for Environmental Cooperation and $250,000 would be for research for sustainable communities.

Belford said the reprogramming request is currently before the appropriations committees on Capitol Hill and the agency has no further comment.

Press officials for those committees and the congressional appropriators the operating plan was addressed to did not provide comment when contacted for this story.

EPA could be facing an even steeper funding decrease in fiscal 2025.

Last month, House Republicans set allocation levels for their appropriations legislation. The Interior-Environment bill, which funds EPA and other environmental agencies, was set at $36.94 billion, about $4.26 billion less than current spending.

House members on the relevant subcommittee are expected to vote on that bill next week.

Meanwhile, budget cuts or no budget cuts, EPA has to maintain its core operations as well as implement the climate and infrastructure laws. Meiburg said those two acts “have placed a tremendous amount of additional work on the agency.”

“It’s a very busy time for hiring at EPA,” Meiburg said.