Politics: Obama’s Budget Giveth and Taketh from Energy and the Environment

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It’s Budget Day in Washington, when policy wonks break out the calculators that have the “trillions” button and decide whether we’ll have six more weeks of winter, or six decades more of crippling budget deficits. Actually, today is the day President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, which you can explore in all its eye-glazing glory over here. Boring or not, though, it’s worth going through Obama’s proposals for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE), if only to see the areas the President really wants to save as he works to win the future.

First the EPA—download a PDF of the budget here. Overall the EPA faces a 12.6% cut, with $9 billion allocated for fiscal 2012, down from the $10.3 billion that had been allocated for fiscal 2010, which represented the agency’s biggest ever budget. That means the White House is accepting some tough cuts, while allowing a few programs—including money for greenhouse gas monitoring and regulation—to rise. A quick rundown:

  • $350 million for ecological restoration in the Great Lakes region, down $125 million from fiscal 2010 levels. (That’s good news for the invasive Asian carp, and bad news for everything else that lives in the Great Lakes.)
  • $1.2 billion for the Superfund program, which supports cleanup at the most hazardous industrial waste sites in the country—including Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, just a few blocks away from my old neighborhood. That’s down $70 million from fiscal 2010 levels.
  • $16.1 million more to address chemical risks in the environment and speed the process of chemical hazard assessments—something that has been criminally slow.
  • $46 million for regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act, a process currently under attack by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. That will include $25 million for states and $5 million for the EPA to cover the cost of permitting under the program. That $25 million is the same amount Obama proposed for fiscal 2011.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson—who has had a tough time of it lately—put the best spin possible on her shrunken budget, arguing that while the cuts would hurt, the EPA could still do its job. “We’ll play our role to cut spending and reduce the deficit,” Jackson told reporters this afternoon. “But the President says we can’t make cuts in a way that undermines our ability to win the future. This budget is a plan to live within our means and invest in the future.”

The DOE, meanwhile, would get a 12% increase over fiscal 2010 levels, with a proposed budget of $29.5 billion. Some of the highlights:

  • $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants, which the government says is enough to support 6 to 8 nuclear power projects, and 9 to 13 new reactors.
  • $550 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which supports potentially game-changing early stage clean energy projects, up from $398 million.
  • A 40% cut in the hydrogen technology research program
  • Cancellation of the Tevatron, a particle accelerator at the Fermi National Laboratory, which would save the DOE $23 million.
  • The repeal of a “number of subsidies and tax preferences” for fossil fuels, which would save the department $3.6 billion.

As DOE Secretary Steven Chu wrote in his blog on February 11:

All of these steps — funding basic research, science and innovation, making tough budget cuts, and implementing strong management reform — will help us win the future by out-innovating, out-educating and out-building the rest of the world. Together we will lay the groundwork for the nation’s future prosperity and security, create jobs, and lead the world in a clean energy economy.

Indeed, throughout his proposed budget, Obama has made sure money remains available for climate change and for clean energy research. That includes millions for permitting new solar, wind and geothermal projects, $588 million for advanced vehicles research and $200 million in incentives for electric vehicle infrastructure. But what isn’t clear—as POLITICO pointed out in a story today—is whether the White House’s office of Energy and Climate Change, until recently occupied by the now-departed Carol Browner, will be kept around. The office isn’t listed in the 2012 budget, though it wasn’t listed in Obama’s earlier budgets either.

Here’s the problem though—Obama’s budget may not be worth the paper it is printed (or the bandwidth it’s been downloaded with, in win the future terms). As Ryan Avent of the Economist noted in a trenchant post today, this year’s Budget Day feels unusually pointless:

While the president proposes budgets, Congress passes budget resolutions and appropriations, and the Republican party controls the House of Representative. That means that many of the specific line items in the budget aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Taxation of carried interest? Forget about it. An end to fossil fuel subsidies? Just like last year, it’s dead on arrival. Perhaps saddest of all is the president’s proposal to reauthorize the nation’s transportation funding law, to be paid for with “bipartisan financing for Transportation Trust Fund”. The bipartisan financing plan would raise $140 billion through 2016, if it weren’t less likely to be found than a yeti riding a unicorn.

Precisely—and Republicans want to treat energy and environmental programs like they would an Amazonian rainforest: slash and burn. House Republicans have already proposed stripping the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, and want to slash funding for other climate change programs. The GOP’s budget proposal also aims to cut the EPA’s budget by $3 billion. Something—quite possibly the government, maybe just the planet—is going to have to give.