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By Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, March 16 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's administration on Thursday proposed a 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, as the White House seeks to eliminate climate change programs and trim initiatives to protect air and water quality.
The EPA would sustain the biggest cut of any federal agency in the White House 2018 budget, as Trump seeks to clear away regulations he claims are hobbling U.S. oil drillers, coal miners and farmers.
The proposed cuts are a starting point, and Congress could temper them in its budget deliberations.
The proposal would slash funding for enforcing regulations, fighting water pollution, cleaning up sites contaminated by toxic waste and promoting energy-efficient appliances. It would eliminate 3,200 EPA employees, or 19 percent of the agency's workforce.
It would effectively erase former President Barack Obama's initiatives to combat climate change by cutting funding for the agency's signature Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
"Consistent with the President's America First Energy Plan, the budget reorients the EPA's air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy," a summary of the proposed EPA budget said.
Some lawmakers from Trump's Republican party praised the proposed cuts, but some expressed concern about cuts to programs affecting their region of the country. Environmentalists blasted the plan, saying it would return America back to 1977 when smoggy skies and polluted rivers pushed lawmakers to strengthen federal clean air and clean water laws.
Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, disputes the scientific consensus that human actions are the lead cause of climate change. In his former position as attorney general of oil-producing Oklahoma, he sued the EPA more than a dozen times.
Pruitt believes Congress should determine whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant that needs regulation. With both chambers currently led by Republicans, and influential committees headed by lawmakers from oil-producing states, that is unlikely anytime soon.
The budget would also eliminate some $100 million in spending on research and international programs on combating climate change.
Trump also doubts the science of climate change and has said the country can reduce green regulations drastically without compromising air and water quality.
Asked about climate change programs, Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director, told reporters "we consider that to be a waste of your money."
"I think the president is fairly straightforward. We're not spending money on that," he said.
The EPA had already faced sharp cuts under Obama. Janet McCabe, a former EPA air official, said Trump's proposed budget would harm the EPA's ability to respond to emergencies and also hurt day-to-day efforts on keeping air and water clean to protect human health.
TURN BACK THE CLOCK
The proposed cuts would cut $427 million aimed at regional pollution cleanup programs, including in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Funding for the Superfund program to clean up the nation's most contaminated sites would drop by $330 million to $762 million.
The summary said the budget seeks to give local and state governments responsibility for such clean-up efforts. Many states and municipalities also face severe budget constraints in the current fiscal environment.
Trump's proposal includes a 31 percent budget cut for the enforcement division, which fines companies for pollution. It would axe dozens of other programs including the popular Energy Star appliance efficiency program aimed at reducing U.S. energy consumption.
"Turning back the clock to 1977 will not 'Make America Great Again'. It will 'Make America Gag Again,'" said Conrad Schneider, the advocacy director at Clean Air Task Force.
One area that would see a small boost is for State Revolving Funds, low-interest loans for investments in water and sanitation infrastructure. The plan would add $4 million to the funds, bringing its budget up to $100 million.
While employees at EPA headquarters in Washington worried about their jobs, some hoped opportunities might open up at the other side of the country.
Representatives of California, where state energy commissions and a clean air agency are hiring, handed recruitment fliers to EPA employees on their way to work.
The fliers said: "Fight Climate Change, Work for California."
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Leslie Adler and Chizu Nomiyama)