A Government Shutdown Would Grind Many Federal Environmental Functions To A Halt

CREDIT: Mark Wilson / Getty Images


CREDIT: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

If the government shuts down, it would mean the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “effectively shuts down” as well, said agency head Gina McCarthy. Current appropriation laws run out on Monday, September 30, at which point the government shutters if Congress and President Obama cannot agree on and pass an extension. A shutdown hasn’t happened since 1995 and 1996.

The EPA employs approximately 17,000 people, “the vast majority” of whom would be sent home and unable to return to work, McCarthy told a breakfast event on Monday. Over half the staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), another federal environmental agency, were also furloughed during previous shutdowns. In fact, 1.2 out of 2 million federal employees would likely be sent home — substantially more than the 800,000 sent home in 1995-1996, when funding for a few select parts of government managed to get passed beforehand.

At this point, the government has shut down enough times — or come close enough to a shutdown — that EPA, NOAA, and other agencies have contingency plans on hand. Services designated “essential” will be continued by skeleton crews. Still, a huge range of important functions the government carries out on environmental policy would go dark.

For instance, EPA oversees environmental permits for construction projects at the regional and local level. That permitting halted under the last shutdown. One fifth of federal contracts in the D.C. area alone — worth $3.7 billion — went on hold in 1995-1996, and employees of contractors were reportedly furloughed without pay. Permits for the drilling and processing of oil and natural gas stopped. Clean up of 609 toxic waste sites ground to a halt, and 2,400 Superfund workers were sent home. The agency stopped working on rules that weren’t considered emergencies, making their deadlines that much tighter when agency employees finally returned. In fact, the EPA is currently in the middle of writing a number of regulations that could be held up by a shutdown, including limits on carbon dioxide emissions for fossil fuel power plants, and a report on regulations for brooks, streams, and other small bodies of water.

Over at NOAA, weather forecasting and monitoring is considered essential, so those programs would keep going. Much of the agency’s data collection from stations and satellites is automated, and would keep going too. But climate research by employees wouldn’t. NOAA would also have to shutter its 12 marine sanctuaries, turning away recreational fishermen and divers. On top of all that, the agency usually has a number of research ships deployed, and it will have to decide if the shutdown is likely to last long enough to justify calling them back in to port.

Even the National Park Service closed its doors last time, shutting down 368 sites like Yosemite National Park and turning away around 7 million visitors.

According to a New York Times piece in the 2011 run-up to a shutdown that ultimately didn’t happen, keeping morale up for furloughed EPA and NOAA employees can also be an issue. Many have to rush work in the final days before they’re sent home, and whether they receive pay retroactively after the government opens up again is up to Congress and not guaranteed. So in 1995-1996, EPA employees volunteered for local environmental clean up projects and education work to pass the time. A group from the agency’s Atlanta branch even formed a local blues rock band named “The Nonessentials.”

For her part, McCarthy said she hopes an agreement will be reached, and that she’ll still be behind her desk as EPA Administrator next week even if a shutdown sends most of agency home. “I think it’s safe to say I will be working,” she said.

“The Administration strongly believes that a lapse in appropriations should not occur,” Emily Cain, the Press Secretary for the Office of Management and Budget, told ThinkProgress. “There is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and the Administration is willing to work with Congress to enact a short-term continuing resolution to fund critical Government operations and allow Congress the time to complete the full year 2014 appropriations.” But given GOP efforts to make new appropriations contingent on defunding Obamacare, and the sheer lack of time, a shutdown is looking more and more likely.

If it’s any consolation, The Nonessentials are still playing occasionally.