Washington's climate -- hot rhetoric, cold comfort as a few good employees struggle on

Astronauts on the International Space Station will not be abandoned by NASA's ground crews. National Science Foundation-supported researchers working on the planet's frozen poles won't be cut off from communications, either. Flood-stricken Colorado will continue to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and if a hurricane approaches U.S. shores, the National Weather Service will be there to tell us about it.

But as Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress continue to squabble over which party is to blame for the first government shutdown since 1995, the impact is already being felt in all federal agencies involved with climate- and climate change-related research and policy.

U.S. EPA will experience some of the largest repercussions of the government shutdown with 96 percent of the agency's 16,205 employees expected to stay at home. Staff members and contractors who maintain public safety and health at toxic waste sites, manage disaster and emergency aid, and handle hazardous materials will continue to work through the shutdown.

"I don't think anybody sees [this] as being optimal for the United States, not having EPA fully up and running," said Administrator Gina McCarthy at an event last week.

The effect of the furloughs on EPA's much-publicized carbon dioxide standards for new and existing power plants depends on the shutdown's duration, said Robert Meyers, senior counsel at Crowell Moring and former deputy administrator in the agency's Air and Radiation Office. But over the three-year timeline President Obama set for the agency's carbon rules, significant delays are unlikely.


"I would fully expect EPA to meet the president's schedule," said Meyers, although there could be a slow return to the process after employees come back to work.

After the agency released a proposal to cut carbon from the nation's future power plants, EPA launched an effort to gather information on how to craft a rule to reduce emissions from the existing power generation fleet. The agency has also organized public meetings to gather comments on the new power plant proposal in 11 cities.

EPA workers have already seen a reduction of hours and smaller paychecks over the years, said Karen Kellen, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238.

"These same employees have already suffered through furloughs due to sequestration during the previous year, losing 55 hours of pay. This lockdown comes on top of three years without raises and an unrelenting attack from virulent anti-government forces," she said in a statement. "These employees just want to do their jobs of protecting the health of the American public. But there are those in Congress who do not want government to be effective or efficient."

Climate change talks and disaster aid continue

On the climate diplomacy scene, little is changing in the short run. Meetings are scheduled around the world, and officials say international travel approved early in the year won't be affected by the shutdown.

Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change, remains at the International Civil Aviation Organization meeting in Montreal negotiating a deal to address aviation emissions. The following week, senior State Department negotiator Trigg Talley will head the U.S. delegation in Warsaw, Poland, for what is known as a pre-COP, or early sessions to prepare for the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change formal negotiations at the end of the year.

It's a far cry from the shutdown scene in 1995-96, when then-State Department Undersecretary for Global Affairs Tim Wirth was told to head home from a biodiversity conference in Jakarta, Indonesia.

"I was chairing a meeting in Indonesia, and the secretary's office called and said, 'You have to come home.' I said, 'OK,' and then I thought about it and said, this is not going to last more than a day or two," Wirth, now vice chairman of the U.N. Foundation, recalled before the narrowly averted 2011 shutdown. The Clinton-era furloughs lasted 21 days and sent 800,000 workers home without paychecks (ClimateWire, Feb. 28, 2011).

Current disaster relief efforts should also continue. According to the Department of Transportation, the 24 staff members working on disaster relief tied to Superstorm Sandy will continue their operations.

Although Congress might not be protected from a deluge of criticism over the shutdown, homeowners will be insured against floods. FEMA said in a memo yesterday that the National Flood Insurance Program will continue to pay claims during the closure.

More than 5 million properties are insured under the program, including many Colorado policyholders who are struggling to recover from violent flash flooding two weeks ago. "The National Flood Insurance Program is funded by sources other than annual appropriations and will maintain daily operations," said the memo by Dennis Kuhns, the director of FEMA's Risk Insurance Division.

But there is concern that the shutdown might slow much-needed aid for flood-stricken Coloradans.

"Individuals who are receiving or applying for aid shouldn't have that interrupted, because it is money that is already in the accounts of executive agencies and doesn't need to be appropriated and should be safe," said Andy Schultheiss, spokesman for Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). "The FEMA folks on the ground here should stay here."

Schultheiss added, "But other folks, within the agency and the [Small Business Administration] and others, will be furloughed, especially the higher-ups. That could have some unpredicted consequences. ... Uncertainty is not what we need right now."

Much climate-related research grinds to a halt

The Department of Energy and its 13,814 employees will also feel the shutdown sting, though the agency has some cash to cushion the blow. As stewards of America's nuclear stockpile and national laboratories, employees will still have to perform critical duties and the department has some previously appropriated funds it can use to coast on its own for a little while.

Speaking for the agency, an official noted that DOE would furlough contractors and employees if balances run out and a funding resolution doesn't pass, seriously jeopardizing how well the department can carry out its mission to advance science and maintain nuclear security.

In its plan for a lapse in appropriations released last week, DOE said it would shut down all nonexempted federal functions within a half-day of money running out, idling 70 percent of its staff. However, presidential appointees and employees funded outside of congressional appropriations will remain on the job, along with 1,113 people kept on to protect nuclear materials, electricity transmission, and science experiments that can't switch on and off quickly without compromising safety.

The plan would stall most energy and climate change projects at DOE, which funds more physical science research than any other agency. Initiatives like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which finances high-risk energy projects like advanced batteries, would close up shop.

America's 17 national laboratories, which cost around $10 billion annually, will continue to run as normal until reserves run dry. Private contractors operate most of the labs, giving them a little bit more flexibility than government departments in keeping people working.

However, if Congress fails to act, facilities like Oak Ridge National Laboratory will shutter, leaving only small numbers of federal employees physically protecting these sites with guns, guards and gates. In addition, carryover funds vary depending on programs, so certain research projects may halt before others.

With this backdrop, laboratories are bracing for an era of tighter budgets and fluctuating funding. DOE's Office of Science, which runs 10 labs, already took a 5 percent budget cut this year under automatic reductions from sequestration. Oak Ridge is now looking to remove 475 positions through voluntary retirements and resignations by the end of the year, regardless of how the government shutdown pans out.

In an email to employees last week, Sandia National Laboratories Director and President Paul Hommert urged them to prudently reduce costs, observing that even if a continuing resolution passes, it's only a temporary reprieve from the perennial specters of shutdowns and cuts.

While one-third of DOT staff, which amounts to 18,481 people, will be forced to go on unpaid vacation during the shutdown, essential employees, including air traffic controllers and other personnel working on safety issues, will report for duty.

Development and testing of the Federal Aviation Administration's "NextGen" program, which will boost the efficiency of air travel through satellite navigation and digital technologies, will go on hold, however. If implemented on time, NextGen is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from aviation by 216 million metric tons, or the equivalent annual carbon dioxide emissions from 45 million passenger cars, by 2035.

NOAA weather forecasters stay; 97% of NASA goes home

Of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's some 12,000 employees, 5,368 will stay on, most with the National Weather Service to support critical weather and forecast monitoring. The NWS website is one of the few NOAA sites that has not been pulled offline.

"The Weather Service is the biggest chunk of our employees who are excepted because they perform a life- or property-saving function. So those are like our meteorologists, our forecasters, our hydrologists," Ciaran Clayton, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said Monday.

NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will retain 73 workers, who will be responsible for maintaining climate monitoring and weather prediction research and maintaining the atmospheric and oceanic data observation record.

Almost 200 workers with the Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service will also stay on to support environmental satellites, and 319 members of the NOAA corps will be on hand to support weather forecasting efforts and data collection.

These essential employees are not guaranteed payment, Clayton said in an email Monday: "It is up to Congress to determine whether or not employees (who are furloughed or not) will receive retroactive pay for days worked during any possible shutdown."

In a statement Monday evening, President Obama assured Americans that the six crew members at the International Space Station will still be supported by NASA Mission Control during the shutdown. But on its 55th anniversary yesterday, the agency was hit especially hard by the shutdown with 97 percent of its 18,000 employees sent home.

NASA builds and launches many of the satellites NOAA depends on for critical climate and weather data. The shutdown could cause further delay to planned satellite programs like GOES-R, which are already struggling due to budget and management shortfalls (Greenwire, Sept. 20).

The NASA website was offline yesterday morning, but in a statement reported by Space.com yesterday, the agency said that "if a satellite mission has not yet been launched, work will generally cease on that project."

'A slap in the face' to science

The shutdown comes at an especially inconvenient time for climate research; a number of scientists with NOAA were co-authors of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which was released in full Monday (ClimateWire, Oct. 1).

Since the shutdown, these experts are no longer available to help interpret the 2,000-page document for journalists or policymakers.

"The scientists involved in that, by and large, will not be helpful to the administration or to Congress in terms of formulating what new policies or approaches that might be dictated by that information ... which is very critical," said Steven Murawski, formerly the chief scientist of the National Marine Fisheries Service under NOAA and now a professor of marine science at the University of South Florida. "Without scientific information, this becomes an exercise in belief rather than fact."

The vast majority of other climate research under the federal government has stopped. "NOAA’s research vessels will all be ordered to return to port, scientific staff will be sent home, and research efforts will be wound down," said Jeff Watters, associate director of government relations for ocean conservancy, in a blog post Monday. "There’s no doubt that a government shutdown would be a blow to ongoing federal ocean research efforts."

For research currently being supported by the NSF, the agency said in its contingency plan that "work may continue on all awards to the extent that doing so will not require federal staff intervention and that funds are available." It also noted that its Division of Polar Programs will continue communications support for scientists currently "on the ice" in the Arctic and Antarctica.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which performs a wide range of climate-related studies, has almost entirely shut down, with 43 of its 8,623 employees exempt under the agency's contingency plan.

"Every day, this shutdown is having adverse effects on a wide range of climate research across the federal agencies," said Rick Piltz, director of the Climate Science Watch program at the Government Accountability Project.

Piltz served in senior positions in the coordination office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1995 to 2005 and had just started there during the last shutdown in 1995. Then, he said, "in terms of global change research, no fatal damage [was] done. People were able to pick back up."

But Piltz added that furloughing what he called the "intelligence community of climate science" sends a "terrible" message to both the researchers and the American people: "What a slap in the face it is to the science community, to just shut them down."

Reporters Lisa Friedman, Umair Irfan, Julia Pyper, Evan Lehmann, Stephanie Paige Ogburn and Tiffany Stecker contributed.

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