The Trump administration has instructed officials at the Environmental Protection Agency to freeze its grants and contracts, a move that could affect everything from state-led climate research to localized efforts to improve air and water quality to environmental justice projects aimed at helping poor communities.
One email went out to employees in the agency's Office of Acquisition Management within hours of President Donald Trump's swearing-in on Friday.
"New EPA administration has asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately," read the email, which was shared with The Washington Post. "Until we receive further clarification, which we hope to have soon, please construe this to include task orders and work assignments."
According to its website, each year the EPA awards more than $4 billion in funding for grants and other assistance agreements. For now, it appears, that funding is on hold, casting a cloud of uncertainty over one of the agency's core functions, as well as over the scientists, state and local officials, universities and Native American tribes that often benefit from the grants.
A spokesperson for the EPA declined comment.
It is unclear whether the move by the incoming administration was related to President Trump's order Monday that federal agencies halt hiring in all areas on the executive branch except for the military, national security and public safety, which also curbed contracting as a way of compensating for the freeze.
"Contracting outside the Government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted," the memorandum states.
Administration officials inserted the language in an apparent attempt to curb the growth in federal contracts that arose during previous freezes imposed under Presidents Carter and Reagan. But the total halt in contracts and grant for a single agency appeared to go beyond that specific provision, which applied solely to contracting activities in response to the halt in hiring.
Myron Ebell, who oversaw the EPA transition for the new administration, told ProPublica on Monday that the freezing of grants and contracts was not unprecedented.
"They're trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don't want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first," said Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-backed group that has long sought to slash the authority of the EPA.
"This may be a little wider than some previous administrations, but it's very similar to what others have done," he told the publication.
But not in recent history has such a blanket freeze taken place, and one employee told ProPublica he did not recall anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency.
The move is likely to increase anxieties inside an already tense agency. Ebell and other transition officials have made little secret about their goal of greatly reducing the EPA's footprint and regulatory reach. Trump has repeatedly criticized the EPA for what he calls a string of onerous, expensive regulations that are hampering businesses. And his nominee to run the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has repeatedly sued the EPA over the years, challenging its legal authority to regulate everything from mercury pollution to various wetlands and waterways to carbon emissions from power plants.