The man who led transition efforts for President Trump at the EPA said the administration's proposed budget signals a commitment to abolish the agency.
But Myron Ebell, a Colorado College graduate and an outspoken climate change skeptic who leads energy and environment policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said it is not an overnight effort.
The administration's preliminary 2018 budget proposal released Thursday charts a course that could lead to the end of the federal environmental agency, Ebell said, speaking to a conservative group at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver on Thursday.
Ebell had proposed Trump make a 10 percent cut to the EPA in his first budget request. The proposal unveiled Thursday would cut the agency by significantly more, up to 31 percent. It represents about a $2.6 billion cut to the agency's relatively small, when compared to other federal agencies, $8.2 billion budget.
The cuts would result in about 3,200 employees being laid off in the initial wave, which could include many regional staff. Denver is home to Region 8 headquarters, a multi-state jurisdiction that covers much of the Intermountain West, which employs about 500 people.
"I think there's a serious commitment here to draining the swamp," Ebell, calling upon a popular Trump campaign mantra, said to applause.
The preliminary budget request would eliminate as much as a fifth of the agency's workforce, which stands at around 15,000. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, including energy grants that help to fight air pollution. Scientific research would also face massive cuts.
Environmental interests had feared Trump's budget proposal would start to chip away at the EPA, ultimately leading to closure. News of the preliminary budget sent many into a tailspin, as it potentially signals a much faster outcome.
Trump also proposed a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department and a 5.6 percent cut to the Department of Energy.
"The president's budget is a moral document, and President Trump has shown us exactly where he stands. These unprecedented cuts will hamper the ability of our park rangers, scientists, those who enforce the law against polluters, and other Coloradans from doing their important work," said Jessica Goad, spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado.
"This is not just cutting the fat, this is a complete butchering of programs and jobs that are critical to Colorado."
The move leaves specific uncertainty in Colorado, where the EPA has promised to cleanup toxic leaking mines that are spilling into the Animas River in Durango. The Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 was triggered by an EPA engineering error, causing about 3 million gallons of mustard yellow sludge to pour into the river.
In the aftermath of the spill, the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, which allows it to spend significant resources to implement a long-term water quality cleanup effort. Some worry those efforts would be diminished by reductions at the EPA.
But Ebell said a pushback to the EPA's "regulatory rampage" does not mean that environmental controls would go away. He said regulations would still be enforced - especially on the state level - including around Superfund sites and clean drinking water.
"The question is, why do we need 15,000 people working for the EPA?" asked Ebell. "I understand why we need some ... Maybe abolishing the agency is something that President Trump ... would want to have a discussion about ... I personally think it's a good idea."