House Speaker John Boehner during a press conference on budget negotiations. Republican pressure to spend less on the government's green initiatives helped cut billions from environmental programs.(Photo: Congressman Boehner)
Lawmakers are busy battling out the budget for next year, but have finally settled on big cuts to the budget for the rest of this year. Host Steve Curwood talks with Washington correspondent Mitra Taj about how the eleventh-hour compromise treated federal environmental initiatives.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
CURWOOD: And I'm Steve Curwood. Under the threat of shutting down the government, Republican budget negotiators set their sights on certain green programs. Prime targets: the EPA, climate-related funding, and public lands. Now with the details of how the last minute deal affects environmental line items in the budget, here’s Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj. Hi Mitra!
TAJ: Hi Steve!
STEVE: So Congress cut about 40 billion dollars from the budget this year. As I understand it, that’s the biggest single non-military budget cut in history, and environmental programs…well, right up on the chopping block.
TAJ: Yes, a lot of environmental programs carried a disproportionately large share of the cuts. Overall the budget was cut by just one percent, but the EPA’s budget was cut by 16 percent. And much of that came from programs that promote clean water and air. Also, Department of Energy's funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy shrunk by 20 percent to 1.8 billion. Research and Development for fossil fuels was cut also, but only by half that amount.
STEVE: Mitra, what about the Department of Interior? I know efforts there to regulate the offshore oil and gas industry saw an uptick in the amount of dough they’re getting, but other Interior programs didn’t get off so easy, huh?
TAJ: They did not. Interior now has a third less to spend on buying land in order to conserve it. And when it comes to the land that the federal government already owns, it might be harder to track the flora and fauna that live there. The budget zeroed out funding for the Wild Lands Initiative, which was going to help identify special places for protection, but which Republicans feared would lead to fencing out development.
Congressman Mike Simpson, the Republican chair of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, also said spending money on the wild lands program would probably just go towards fending off lawsuits from energy companies. And he led efforts to make even deeper cuts to both Interior and to the EPA, and when Democrats railed against those proposals, he had this to say:
SIMPSON: I will tell you the outrage here is that we are having to do this because the majority, the former majority, when they had the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate, and the White House, fail to pass an appropriation bill. They left the American people in this country with this pile of crap. They should not complain about how we try to clean this up.
STEVE: Whoa, I guess passions were running high there, huh?
CURWOOD: Now Congressman Simpson is from Idaho - that’s a state that is very concerned about its population of gray wolves. And as I understand it, the congressman pushed through an amendment that takes the Rocky Mountain gray wolf off of the endangered species list?
TAJ: Exactly - that ended up being in the final deal. The gray wolf, as you know, was brought back into the wild 16 years ago, and whether it should be protected has been the subject of a slew of lawsuits over the years. So in passing this amendment, Congress has essentially legislated a species out of endangered status without a scientific or legal review.
CURWOOD: Now what about those other amendments, those other riders that had nothing to do with the budget? The ones that would have restricted the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act?
TAJ: Well the rider that would have blocked the EPA’s climate authority was part of why budget negotiations got so close to a government shutdown. Democrats ended up standing their ground and managed to strip it out of the final deal at the very last minute, which made many climate advocates very happy.
But some environmental groups weren’t as pleased with the rest of the deal, and not just what got cut, but what didn’t get cut. The tax credit for ethanol was left untouched, as was the some four billion a year we spend on oil and gas subsidies. Here’s Adam Kolton with the National Wildlife Federation:
KOLTON: If we eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies, we could save 46.2 billion dollars over the next ten years. So when you start talking about taking, you know, nearly two billion dollars out of the Environmental Protection Agency budget, 4.7 billion from Forest Service operations, it doesn't make a lot of sense. And it doesn't really pass the smell test to make the argument that everyone's got to bear the burden of making these cuts when you know that wasn’t the case: that corn ethanol subsidies were left intact, that oil and gas subsidies were left intact.
CURWOOD: Mitra, now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lost 142 million dollars in funding and will have to put on hold a program that hasn’t even got off the ground yet: The Climate Service.
TAJ: That’s right, Steve. The Climate Service lost its funding for the rest of the year, and some suspect that it might have been targeted in particular because it has the word "climate" in its name. Programs related to climate change in all federal agencies lost 13 percent of their funding.
And, you know, The Climate Service was actually NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco's vision for drawing what’s known about climate change from a number of federal programs into one place so that people across the country could plan for the future. She spoke to Living on Earth about it in 2009.
LUBCHENCO: We need a national climate service to provide the kind of information that citizens, policymakers, and the private sector are already asking for: How will climate change affect my interests and my businesses, my recreational opportunities - in my backyard? Currently, there's no one place they can go.
CURWOOD: And so there's still no one place they can go. And Mitra, I guess this is far from Washington's last word on the budget: These and other programs can be restored, or chopped further, in just a few months.
TAJ: Yes, this budget just funds the government for the rest of this fiscal year, which means just until the end of September. Republicans have put out their proposed budget for 2012, which calls for even deeper cuts to environmental initiatives and fewer restrictions on oil and gas drilling.
And President Obama is still asking Congress to make bolder investments in clean energy and to leave the EPA’s climate authority alone. So we'll have to see what happens, but I think when you look at the compromises achieved in this budget, it's pretty clear that a lot of common ground will be found in spending less on environmental programs.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Mitra Taj in Washington. Thank you, Mitra!
TAJ: You're welcome, Steve.
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