The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has had to furlough more than 16,000 of its employees—about 93 percent of its staff—due to the government shutdown. It's down to the bare-bone minimum like so many other government agencies. But the longer the shutdown drags on, the longer the health of the environment and the public is at risk.
The employees within the EPA make it their goal to protect the health of both American citizens and the environment. The agency's enforcement guards against toxic air and water pollutants, the release of poisonous chemicals from hazardous waste sites, ingestion of lead-based paint and even asbestos in buildings. But the shutdown has seriously hampered its capacity to perform these duties.
There are no longer scientists to inspect industrial facilities to ensure they are following pollution control standards. Litigation to punish violators of pollution laws has been halted. Companies seeking environmental permits are out of luck. Basically, the EPA isn't much of a deterrent while the government's not operational.
Some staff members remain at the EPA to handle any major emergences, such as an oil spill, but even still their capacity is severely limited.
The environmental agency also runs a federal program, Superfund, which was established to help clean up hazardous waste sites in America. Though the EPA has cleaned up tens of thousands of these toxic dumps over the past two decades there are still more than 800 Superfund sites across the nation today, and clean-up work on most has been halted due to the government shutdown. Cleaning can only continue for a few of the more severe sites, those deemed an imminent threat to the public.
But even then, the EPA's staffing has lulled considerably, which slows the whole process. Even worse, the shutdown will likely cause delays in these crucial projects in the future, as the cleanup process cannot be re-started as easily as it was stopped.
The U.S. has been a major player in the world race to dominate the clean energy sector. But the shutdown may cause some rifts there too. Most researchers were deemed non-essential and thus remain at home instead of in laboratories conceptualizing, designing and testing the world's next alternative energy innovations.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had to stop permitting for offshore wind development, affecting electric companies and utilities looking to get more renewable energy on the U.S. electric grid. The Department of Energy had to suspend its recently announced Advanced Research Projects Agency, which supports 33 projects intended to develop affordable clean energy alternatives for the transportation sector. About $1 billion worth of clean energy investments have come to a screeching halt for the Department of Defense, hampering the nation's development of microgrids, next-generation batteries and even solar panels for military bases.
A few weeks ago the EPA proposed a new set of carbon pollution standards that would place limits on carbon emissions from new coal power plants. The rules have been controversial and received a lot of press. But it may be a while before the public can get involved. The EPA scheduled two public listening sessions this week, but had to postpone the events until the agency can reopen. And don't expect to find any new information regarding the rules until the agency is back at full throttle—it can't even update its website or social media channels.
Fossil fuel-generated energy is not free from impact either. The Interior Department paused permits for both offshore and onshore natural gas leases. The development of regulatory rules for hydraulic fracturing are at a standstill as the Bureau of Land Management shut down. And the Department of Energy had to significantly slow the review of applications for exporting liquefied natural gas, a process many say could transform the nation into an energy exporter.
The longer the shutdown persists, the bigger the environmental risk in the United States. Hopefully the federal government will open again before even more damaging or long-term consequences occur.
By. Clint Robertson
Clint Robertson is a freelance writer who has held numerous positions in the energy industry. His work promotes ways to educate the general population and reduce the carbon footprint for the betterment of the world by focusing on our need for renewable energy sources.