What the Shutdown Means For Energy and Environmental Programs

As you’ve probably heard, the U.S. government has shut down for the first time in 17 years.

That means many of the agencies responsible for weather, climate and energy regulation are largely shuttered as well, forced to whittle down their staffs to only their most essential employees. These include:

The Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is taking one of the biggest hits of any federal agency — about 96 percent of the agency’s staff aren’t coming to work, meaning the agency, in EPA Chief Gina McCarthy’s words, has “essentially shut down.” The staff that will be coming to work include employees who “ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food and drugs and safe use of hazardous materials,” as well as workers who protect federal lands and research property and provide disaster and emergency aid. Managers of some Superfund cleanup sites must come to work if stopping the work would pose a threat to human health; pesticide regulators, staff who write and implement major air pollution rules, and staff who are in charge of the EPA’s proposal for renewable fuel standards, on the other hand, will stay home.

National Parks. Google celebrated the 123rd anniversary of Yosemite National Park today; ironically, because the park — and all other national parks, monuments and government-funded museums — is now closed to the public. The oil and gas industry, however, will keep on drilling on public lands, though the process for issuing new oil and gas permits will be halted. Only a few employees will be at work overseeing drilling activities such as “well shut-ins, re-completions, and downhole/equipment changes in drilling/plugging operations.”

The Department of Energy. The DOE is losing 69 percent of its staff. Most employees conducting energy research are staying home during the shutdown, but those employees who oversee nuclear materials and power grids, as well as one employee from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and a few employees responsible for environmental cleanup are still at work.

NASA. The agency is taking the biggest hit of all – 97 percent of its employees are staying home due to the shutdown. Scientists at the international space station, of course, are still at work, and the agency is making sure they’re still being taken care of. NASA’s Asteroid Watch Twitter account, however, is down, which means it won’t be warning the public via social media of potentially dangerous asteroids. The account clarified that “many observatories, astronomers are watching the skies” so at least they’ll be on the lookout, even if they won’t be tweeting.

The good news, however, is that a few government agencies and organizations have managed to skirt the shutdown. Here are a few of the major energy and climate-related exceptions:

The National Weather Service. You’ll still be able to recieve weather forecasts and warnings, because the NWS is considered an essential service. As NOAA, which houses the NWS, explains: “emergency operations that protect against a significant and imminent threat to the safety of human life and property” will remain open, despite the shutdown. At 3,935 employees, the NWS is by far the largest organization within NOAA to remain open, but it’s not the only weather-related organization to avoid the shutdown — the National Hurricane Center, too, willcontinue to track storms.

Colorado flood relief. FEMA has assured Coloradans that aid to the state devastated by recent flooding will continue. “Our ongoing response operations, such as the individual assistance being provided to survivors of the flooding in Colorado, will not be impacted directly by a government shutdown,” said FEMA spokesperson Dan Watson. “FEMA’s response to disasters and emergencies is funded by the Disaster Relief Fund, which would not initially be affected by a funding lapse for annual appropriations.” However, the roughly 120 Colorado National Guard members working to repair roads and bridges could be told to go home if Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel doesn’t reclassify them as “essential.”

Hurricane Sandy rebuilding. There were worries that a shutdown would halt much of the rebuilding of the East Coast from Superstorm Sandy’s destruction, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says dredging and dune rebuilding projects are already funded, so work on these projects will continue. But there’s a caveat: relief fund recipients will still have access to their money, but all new funding would be halted during the shutdown, which could, as President Obama said Monday, cause some home and business owners to see delays in rebuilding.

The Energy Information Administration. According to one EIA official, the administration has enough funds to stay open until Oct. 11, despite the shutdown. The EIA provides weekly updates on U.S. oil and natural gas inventories as well as periodical information about the state of renewable energy in America.

The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Both housed within NOAA, these departments are responsible for air quality and climate monitoring research that ensures “continuity of crucial long-term historical climate records,” and protection and monitoring of endangered ocean species and protected marine areas, respectively. They employ 547 staff members between the two of them, and they both are staying open.

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