A young lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency had a heavy feeling as he headed to work one recent morning.
Like many EPA staffers, he’s been distraught over the steady stream of negative news about the Trump administration’s plans for his agency, and what it all means for his future. That morning the White House had released its budget proposal, calling on Congress to cut 31 percent of the EPA’s budget, more than 50 programs and 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 employees.
The lawyer’s subway stop, the Federal Triangle Metro Station, dumps people out under a grand archway between two entrances to the EPA’s ornate limestone DC headquarters. As he went up the escalator, he encountered a small group of people standing in the cold wind, passing out fliers and holding signs that read: “Fight climate change; work for California.”
A man with a bushy gray mustache exclaimed: “I’m recruiting for California jobs!” and introduced himself to the EPA lawyer as Michael Picker, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities.
Picker explained that he has 250 job openings—and more on the way. California’s Air Resources Board and Energy Commission also have opportunities for federal employees frustrated with the direction in which the Trump administration is headed.
“All the jobs will have impacts on climate change in some ways,” he said.
Picker’s recruitment drive is more than a publicity stunt: His agency is short-staffed already, and he’s steadily losing employees to retirement. He needs reinforcements to meet an enormous challenge in front of him. He needs to ensure that electric utilities make the investments necessary to generate enough clean energy to meet California’s ambitious climate change goals. (California is committed to getting 50 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2030.)
The EPA lawyer said his encounter with Picker last week lifted his spirits giving him a sense of “relief” and “hope.” He’d already considered seeking a job in California, where the state government has a strong commitment to environmental protection.
“There’s a pull and a push, especially with the budget coming out,” added the lawyer, who like other EPA staffers, didn’t want his name used for fear it would put his job in jeopardy.
This was just the kind of encounter that Picker hoped for when he decided to turn an already-planned trip to Washington, D.C., into a mini recruiting mission. His goal was to try to lure talented federal employees to California state government by promising them a chance to work someplace still committed to fighting climate change. He also spent a morning passing out fliers at the Energy Department. But he was especially happy with how things went outside EPA’s headquarters.
One EPA staffer ran inside and returned with a resume. An EPA engineer asked for extra fliers for his colleagues. Picker passed out business cards, offering to help the D.C. refugees navigate the cumbersome hiring process at California state agencies. “Thank you for offering to rescue us!” one EPA staffer bellowed as he walked past.
Picker’s challenge is bigger than getting companies to generate cleaner electricity. He also has to ensure they make investments to transform the electric grid to meet the challenges of all the additional renewable power that’s coming online.
The grid was designed as a centralized system where electricity was generated by relatively few large power plants. The grid now needs to get a lot smarter to manage many thousands of new sources of power, from large-scale solar and wind farms to solar panels on top of people’s homes. Cleaner electricity isn’t enough: California also wants to shift its vehicles to clean electricity: “That’s why we need people—to help build the infrastructure California needs to get greenhouse gases out of our economy. These tasks aren’t going to solve themselves.”
Despite all the rhetoric from the White House and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about major plans to transform the agency and downplay climate change, there hasn’t yet been a big exodus. EPA employees are passionate about the mission of the agency, and so far, many staffers say they’re still doing their usual work.
“Because nothing drastic has changed yet at EPA, people don’t have immediate pressure to leave,” said another EPA staffer who spoke with Picker. “You saw people taking those fliers. So it’s not that people aren’t thinking about it.”
She said she thinks California is smart to try to lure away the EPA’s talented employees at a time when their current employer is making it clear their work isn’t valued. She will definitely consider moving to California for a job, she said.
Fundamental changes are on the way, given that Pruitt and President Donald Trump have vowed to undo the biggest efforts undertaken by the EPA during the Obama administration—regulations to slash greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants and protect wetlands and waterways. Trump took a big step today with an executive order undoing many Obama-era regulations. EPA staffers will now be charged with justifying the elimination of regulations that they or their colleagues spent years crafting.
None of the EPA staffers I spoke with were willing to have their names published.
“We’re all afraid now of retribution if we talk. It’s already started to happen,” said one staffer.
John O’Grady, president of a national council of EPA employee unions, said EPA employees are right to be cautious. “We all pretty much are aware we cannot speak out in the press; that would not be a very smart move on the part of an employee.”
As Picker was wrapping up for the morning, a bundled-up bike commuter rode up to ask about an application he’d already sent in. Picker promised to help and then took a photo with some volunteers who had showed up to help him pass out fliers. One was a corporate lawyer, another a former Energy Department official, and third a solar executive from Oregon who was in town for business.
“I’m disillusioned by Trump’s budget proposal,” said Tom Starrs, a vice president of SunPower Corporation. ”On the other hand, I’m inspired by California continuing to address climate change and by the support at every level of government in California. It’s a unified front on climate change. It’s wonderful to see.”
Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes for High Country News, where this story first appeared.