Our dutiful elected leaders in Washington D.C. have decided that playing political games is more important than ensuring a functional government. Because Congress has been forced into debating the merits of the Affordable Care Act, again, appropriations for the activities of the federal government have yet to me made, which has effectively shut down the government of the United States. Now – we’ve been here before; the federal government has shut down 17 times in the last 40 years. So we all know that life will go on; the military will continue to defend, social security will be paid, and the mail will continue to be delivered. However, the activities and responsibilities of many federal agencies will be halted, including those of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And a prolonged shutdown could have dire implications for our environment.
The EPA Wants to do it, but They Can’t
According to the EPA’s administrator, Gina McCarthy, the agency responsible for protecting our nation’s environment will be “effectively shut down” without funding from Congress – and she’s not exaggerating. The EPA’s Contingency Plan for Shutdown shows that less than 6% of the EPA’s over 16,000 employees will remain working during a government shutdown. Think about that for a second. What could 6% of your organization’s employees hope to accomplish? At AUS, we would be lucky to just read emails at that employment level. These 6% will still be responsible for ensuring national security, responding to environmental and public health emergencies, and managing the most threatening Superfund sites. Other activities will cease however, much to the detriment of our environment and economy. These include:
- Writing Regulations: A primary function of the EPA is developing the specifics of federal environmental policy. These activities will be put on hold and it couldn’t come at a worse time. The EPA is currently in the process of adopting the regulations that will govern carbon emissions from fossil fuel power plants, a signature aspect of President Obama’s environmental agenda. Delays in the process could lead to ineffective policy or could push back implementation dates. Either way, it likely means more pollution from the largest polluters in the country; our power plants.
- Enforcing Regulations: Though the EPA will still be able to enforce regulations in situations concerning an imminent threat to public health and safety, they will not be able enforce all of the regulations currently on the books. Regulations that have not been deemed essential in protecting public health and safety may still be important in maintaining our current environmental quality. A possible lapse in environmental policy enforcement opens up the potential for environmental degradation. Will a shutdown lasting a few days create any major regulatory issues? Probably not, but one of a few weeks may begin to challenge, in some cases, the resolve to comply.
- Research: A major arm of the EPA is environmental research. The data collected by the EPA over the years has proven invaluable in our efforts to further understand our planet and what effects our activities may be having upon it. A government shutdown could lead to breaks in the collection of data, creating a challenge to ongoing studies. Obviously a shutdown will also lead to delays in the processing and analyzing of data, which will impact when it may be productively applied. Thankfully much of the data collected by the EPA comes from automated sources (Thank you technology!) but the agency is still reliant on human collected data.
- Superfunds: The EPA manages hundreds of toxic waste sites, known as Superfunds. Through the Superfund program, waste sites are cleaned up in the safest and most environmentally responsible ways possible. Under a government shutdown, only the most threatening Superfund sites will continue to be managed. So what happens to the rest? Well, the EPA will discontinue the cleanup and monitoring efforts on these sites. This could lead to environmental contamination on some level and will definitely prolong the cleanup process for these sites, something that can have an economic, as well as environmental impact on the communities located near these sites. Certainly not an ideal situation.
- Permits: It is also the EPA’s responsibility to issue various environmental permits at the national, regional, and local levels. Without funding, the issuing of these permits will stop. This includes permits for drilling and processing energy resources such as oil and natural gas. An extended shutdown could begin to influence the supply and therefore the price of these commodities ahead of the heating season. Many other construction projects will be stalled pending permit approvals, adding to the costs of projects; just what our fragile economy needs.
Beyond the EPA
A government shutdown will also impact the environment and the economy through the forced inactions of other agencies requiring appropriations:
- Hundreds of thousands of National Parks and Landmarks will be closed. It’s quite sad to think of the millions of people not being able to enjoy some of the great natural wonders of our country. It might be sadder yet, though, to think of the millions of dollars of revenue that businesses, dependent on the tourism of these areas, will be losing.
- Collection of garbage and recycling will also be halted in Washington D.C. with a prolonged shutdown. Now it’s not really good to send garbage to the landfill, but that is certainly better than having the garbage pile up in the streets. Just ask New York City. You also must worry about the recycling effort if garbage doesn’t get collected for a few weeks.
- The Department of Interior will stop its activities to support renewable energy, though they will continue to ensure the safety and production of offshore drilling. Another sign that renewable energy still has progress to make.
- An extended shutdown could also begin to impact state and local services, and programs that protect the environment and promote the economy. Many of these programs are dependent on federal money from various agencies as part of their funding. That money won’t be there if the government isn’t operating. And the impact of the shutdown could get exponentially worse in some areas.
So while our elected representatives continue to bicker and point fingers at one another over why our government has shut down, the rest of us will have to deal with the consequences, both environmentally and economically. Hopefully Mother Nature will be as forgiving of us as we seem to be with our uncompromising officials.
The following is an opinion post by David Thurnau. David writes content for several companies on topics related to energy, sustainability, and government policy.
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