Robbing Renewable Energy to Pay Teachers

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This afternoon, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi called them back from their six-week summer break, members of the House of Representatives passed an emergency $26 billion spending bill to prevent the layoff of 300,000 teachers, police and other civil servants from layoffs due to state cutbacks. The bill passed along a nearly party-line vote—Democrats hailed it as the only way to keep thousands of teachers in the classrooms as students prepared to return to school, while Republicans derided the legislation as yet another fiscally irresponsible government bailout. To wit:

“Where do the bailouts end?” asked Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. “Are we going to bail out states next year and the year after that, too? At some point we’ve got to say, ‘Enough is enough.'”

And on the other side of the aisle:

“We can’t stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe,” said President Obama during remarks in the Rose Garden ahead of the vote.

So, yet another example of how politically divided Washington is, how strapped our state finances are—and perhaps how essentially ungovernable we’ve become. Not something that would usually involve Ecocentric—I try to avoid any stories that contain the word “Medicaid.” But in order to provide some of the funds needed to pay for that $26 billion package, the House voted to transfer $1.5 billion from the renewable-energy and loan-guarantee program used to support solar, wind and other alternative energy companies. Along with another reduction earlier this year, that leaves the program’s size at about $25 billion—less than half what Democrats in Congress had originally planned. (Unsurprisingly, the Senate has already passed a similar measure.)

Now I’m the last person who would argue against giving more money to teachers. I believe education is incredibly important for the future of the country, and that our plummeting college graduation rate is one more reason why this country seems to be crumbling beneath our feet. (And I’m the child of two public-school teachers from suburban Philadelphia.) But it is sad and shortsighted that as the Democratic leadership in the House scrambled to find money to pay for this last-minute bill, they had no qualms about pilfering a fund meant to direct us towards a cleaner, greener future. Al Gore himself weighed in:

Although this is an important measure, this $1.5 billion dollar cut is on top of the $2 billion dollars taken out of the renewables fund to pay for an extension to the Cash for Clunkers program. Taken together this is more than one-half of the $6 billion dollars allocated to the Energy Department for the Renewables/Transmission Loan Guarantee Program under the Recovery Act. These rescissions put into jeopardy the green jobs that the administration have touted as part of our clean energy future and put us further behind the rest of the world.

The renewable energy industry, which depends on these loan guarantees to give them the cashflow necessary to bring expensive new projects to the market, protested as well in a letter to Pelosi:

With this latest rescission, a total of $3.5 billion will be eliminated from the program, and many pending projects will go unfunded. An estimated private sector investment of $30 to $35 billion will be squandered.

These two cuts will significantly undermine the DOE Loan Guarantee Program. Failure to act on the Treasury Grant Program and other tax incentives or to restore funding to the DOE Loan Guarantee Program will jeopardize the renewable energy industries’ efforts to develop clean electric generation and create tens of thousands of jobs.

Pelosi’s staff has said that she will work to restore the funding at a later date. But that didn’t happen with the money taken out to pay for the Cash for Clunkers program—which at least had some environmental features—and given the toxic environment in Congress today, with November midterms rushing toward us, it’s hard to see that happening. The reality is that for all the lip service paid by Democrats to the renewable energy industry—supposedly the future of jobs in America—these companies have little political influence on Capitol Hill.

I know the U.S. faces truly frightening fiscal constraints. But surely in a country that spends over $700 billion on defense—just to take an example—we can find other sources to help cover the costs of shifting to cleaner energy. (Obviously China can—Beijing announced just a few days ago that it will spend $738 on renewable-energy projects over the next decade.) We talk about the climate crisis, the energy crisis, yet decisions like the one made today demonstrate our inability to face up to the future. Even by our current, depressed political standards, that’s sad.