The federal budget will be the next battleground in the ongoing energy policy war between President Obama and congressional Republicans.
As budget season kicks off, it’s no surprise that the limited-government deficit hawks on Capitol Hill sound full of plans to cut White House spending proposals on programs from food safety to farm subsidies. And Obama has declared a spending freeze on all discretionary non-defense programs, a move involving cuts to programs many Democrats hold dear, such as the LIHEAP program that helps poor people pay winter heating expenses.
But the clash over whether to spend or slash on energy and climate should be among the most explosive. Both sides will use the budget to advance opposing energy policies, and they view the fight as one with exceptionally high political stakes, involving the fate of the economy and of the 2012 elections.
The biggest and most immediate battle will be over funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s new program to control the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The EPA last month rolled out its first climate regulation program, established after Congress failed to pass a cap-and-trade law to control fossil fuel pollution.
Republicans have placed the new climate rules among their top targets in their offensive against what they see as government overregulation, and they are attacking on multiple fronts. They have already introduced a slew of bills to handcuff the EPA’s authority to control climate pollution; they’ll now use the budget debate to go after the agency’s funding to carry out its mandate.
“All along we have been talking about approaching this in a lot of different ways and we’re trying to address it from the authorizing standpoint,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “And we’re also trying to address it from the appropriations standpoint, so I don’t think action in one area would preclude action in the other area.”
That effort started Wednesday with the House Appropriations Committee’s release of a partial list of proposed cuts in a spending bill that it will roll out today. The preliminary list proposes cutting $9 million from the EPA’s greenhouse gas reporting program—a building block for continuing with further regulations. More EPA cuts are expected in the full bill, and it’s expected that Republicans will introduce amendments to cut the EPA’s budget and authority to regulate carbon emissions and other pollutants when the bill is debated on the House floor next week.
The White House will fight back, hard. Tackling climate change is a cornerstone of Obama’s agenda, and the administration will not accept those attacks lightly. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said assaults on those rules, through budget cuts or regulatory rollbacks, amount to attacks on human health.
“The Clean Air Act is about having air that’s safe to breathe and [the] Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act are about half of our budget,” Jackson said. “We also have a significant portion of our budget that covers toxic waste cleanup, we have pesticide programs and toxic chemicals programs. We are the agency whose mission is protection of human health and the environment.”
Obama has made clear that even with a frozen bottom line, he intends to double down on clean energy research spending, fighting to fund programs he sees as central to investing in U.S. competitiveness as a way to spark the economy. One of the key recipients of his Valentine’s Day budget request will be an Energy Department program called Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which researches cutting-edge clean and renewable technology. Congress created the program in 2007, but has never funded it through the annual appropriations process. It has received funding only once—$400 million through the stimulus law. Obama is expected to request continuing and perhaps even increasing that level of funding—while Republicans are expected to fight hard against a program that didn’t get paid for even when Democrats were in the majority in Congress.
Meanwhile, the House Republican proposal would slash $899 million from the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office, another spot where the president is likely to ask for increased spending. Republicans will likely slam the expenditures as unnecessary subsidies that pick winners and losers among the energy industry.
On the other side of the ledger, Obama will propose slashing about $4 billion in tax breaks to oil and gas drillers. That idea is also a political hot button, although hardly a new one—Democratic leaders have tried and failed for years to roll back oil incentives, but the oil industry’s many allies on Capitol Hill have ensured that never happens.
But given Republicans’ vocal criticism of federal spending to subsidize energy interests—and insistence on broadly slashing government spending—Democrats are expected to hammer at the idea to gain political points as the budget process unfolds.
This article appears in the February 10, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.