Group say spending cuts from deficit talks’ failure will imperil environmental programs, regulations

An advocacy group said Monday that automatic spending cuts resulting from failed deficit-reduction talks would probably further starve U.S. agencies of the funding they rely on to administer environmental programs.

The bipartisan “supercommittee” of lawmakers tasked with reaching a deal on cutting $1.2 trillion in spending over 10 years failed to reach an agreement, its co-chairmen said Monday. That development sets into motion $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, split between defense and domestic programs, starting in January 2013.

“This is not good for the future of environmental or any other discretionary program,” David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters.

The NRDC pointed to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, which suggested the automatic spending cuts would decrease domestic discretionary budget authority — which includes environmental programs — by 9 percent across the board in 2013.

Goldston said it’s too early to know which specific environmental programs would face the brunt of the triggered cuts. But he warned against subjecting non-defense discretionary programs to the level of cuts in the trigger because they comprise less than one-fifth of the total federal budget.

For example, in fiscal year 2010, the government spent $660 billion on non-defense discretionary programs, out of total expenditures of $3.5 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“These programs have tight budgets to begin with,” Goldston said. “You don’t have to start cutting very deeply before you start seeing real effects.”

Given that the automatic cuts won’t start until early 2013, Congress still has time to try to cut $1.2 trillion a different way, said Ethan Pollack, senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute. “In the end Congress can do what it wants,” Pollack said.

Cuts to agencies that handle environmental issues would almost certainly slow down new regulations and reduce their ability to enforce existing rules, Goldston said, largely because of the funding the rule-making process itself requires.

“(Regulations) actually require research, they require analysis,” Goldston said. “That takes money and that takes time. The less money, the more time.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has said it’s already years behind schedule on some regulations, including for toxic air emissions from power plants. In some cases environmental and health groups including the Natural Resources Defense Counci have taken court action aimed at speeding up the rule-making process.

John Walke, clean-air director at the NRDC, said government agencies are now mulling regulations for matters that weren’t considered to be problems when the nation’s main environmental laws were written. Agencies are already struggling enough to meet legal deadlines for rules that are spelled out in those laws, he said.

“You’re going to have these new and emerging threats that go unaddressed or badly addressed because of the situation created by a dysfunctional Congress,” Walke said.

Among the emerging issues he cited were climate change and the  oil-and-gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing.

Fracturing involves injecting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals at high pressures and deep underground to break up shale-rock formations and extract the trapped oil and natural gas. Environmental groups say the process can contaminate aquifers and drinking-water wells, a notion the oil and gas industry generally disputes.

The EPA has said it will write standards for disposal of chemical-infused fracturing wastewater, while the Interior Department is drafting rules for fracturing on public lands.