BUDGET:

Obama stresses climate change and clean energy in budget that may be scratch paper for divided Congress

The White House released a 2013 budget request yesterday that would increase funding for climate change and clean energy programs at several agencies even as it seeks to rein in overall spending to comply with spending limits set by the Budget Control Act enacted last year.

While the request is largely symbolic, released at the beginning of an election year to a Congress that has found little common ground with the Obama administration, it does offer a window into White House thinking on climate and energy issues.

The president's proposal would increase spending at the Energy Department to $27.2 billion, 3.2 percent above the 2012 level.

The White House request includes a 27.3 percent increase, to $350 million, for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which is designed to fund high-risk, high-reward research projects in areas like energy storage, alternative fuels and emissions reductions.

DOE's Energy and Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program would also receive a significant boost, up 29 percent, to $2.3 billion.

The White House request would also boost the Advanced Manufacturing Office's budget to $290 million, an increase of 150 percent, to carry out its goal of getting new materials and technologies to assembly lines to improve efficiency while cutting costs and increasing production quality.

A 'pragmatic' proposal for DOE

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said yesterday that his department is also increasing efforts to commercialize its technologies by making it easier for companies to license patents form national labs and other research facilities.

"We've realized that one size doesn't fit all," said Chu, pointing to changes that will allow small businesses to get exclusive licensing rights to patents in order to gain a competitive edge.

The White House request would also cut funding for some programs at DOE, including carbon capture and sequestration development and spending on nuclear energy.

The agency also plans to cut its vehicle fleet by 35 percent over the next few years, as part of an overall penny-pinching plan that includes new efforts to cut travel expenses and improved energy and resource management.

"We're very focused on saving money by saving energy," Chu said.

The department's internal cuts are meant to serve as an example to other parts of the government and the private sector. "We certainly hope that the Department of Energy and other agencies will continue to provide leadership in some of these efficiency areas," said Floyd Deschamps, senior vice president for policy and research at the Alliance to Save Energy, a business consortium that advocates better energy use.

He said he was happy to see DOE's priorities reflected in the 2013 budget. "Recognizing the budgetary situation that the country is in, we're relatively pleased and surprised at the investments in energy and efficiency," said Deschamps. "We just think it's a wise investment on the nation's part to do more with less."

Matthew Stepp, a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said DOE's 2013 budget proposal was "a bit more on the pragmatic side" compared to previous requests.

"The budget request captures realistically what's going on," said Stepp, noting that many of the technologies developed in previous years are now progressing down the development cycle with the eventual goal being sold on the market. "They're moving a few more dollars into scale-up and demonstrations," he said, helping research "bridge the valley of death" toward commercialization.

Transportation

The White House proposal would boost sustainable transportation initiatives at U.S. EPA and the Transportation Department.

The administration is seeking $10 million in upgrades to EPA's National Fuel and Emissions Laboratory to support implementation of the Renewable Fuels Standard and greenhouse gas standards for light- and medium-duty vehicles. The plan would save about 12 billion barrels of oil and 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere over the lifetimes of vehicles sold through model year 2025, according to the White House.

However, the administration is also requesting to cut its Clean Automotive Technology program, one of several overlapping programs whose termination will save $50 million.

The $10 million is unlikely to make a significant impact to improve vehicle standards said Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of Edmunds.com, a provider of automotive information. "It seems like a lot of money to me, but by Congress's standards it's a drop in the bucket," he said.

The President's six-year $476 billion ground transportation reauthorization proposal could go much further in reducing the carbon footprint of U.S. transportation.

The budget would ensure $108 billion in dedicated funding for public transportation over six years, and $47 billion to develop high-speed rail corridors over the same period. It also renews the government's commitment to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program -- which has supported pedestrian, bicycle and transit access -- and would set aside $20 billion for a competitive grant program to foster innovations in safety and sustainability programs.

"The whole point of both of these programs is to leverage a minimum amount of federal funding to achieve better outcomes, including less pollution," said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So there are a lot of good things in here that should help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The president also slated $74 billion for the Department of Transportation, a $1.4 billion increase above the 2012 enacted level. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the budget in a press briefing yesterday, and criticized the House Republicans for their version of the transportation reauthorization bill.

"The House bill takes us back to the dark ages," said Secretary LaHood. "It doesn't reflect the transportation values of this administration and doesn't really reflect the transportation values of this country."

H.R. 7 cuts funding for rail programs, destabilizes funding for public transportation and completely eliminates the TIGER initiative and other alternative transportation programs. Some have called the legislation a bad deal for the climate (ClimateWire, Feb. 16).

Both the House and the Senate will consider their transportation bills this week. LaHood said that without amendments, the House bill would not pass.

Forest Service

The Forest Service would receive $4.86 billion under the White House's 2013 request, a $15.5 million increase over the 2012 enacted level.

Funds for wildland fire management would increase by $236 million above current levels, to $1.97 billion. The preparedness budget will drop by $2.9 million, due to a decrease in the cost of readiness resources. For example, the Forest Service plans to replace its old, large airtankers with more efficient ones to fight fires, at an initial cost of $24 million proposed in the 2013 request.

Much of the wildfire funding, along with money for other climate change programs like wildlife management and watershed adaptation, is included in the $793 million proposed for the Integrated Restoration (IRR) fund, $12 million less than the 2012 enacted level.

This reflects a shift from line-item proposals for specific projects to a more integrated approach, said David Cleaves, climate change adviser to Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell.

"This is a structural change in the budget as well as an increase," said Cleaves. "What it does for climate change it allows us to do more rapid adaptation treatments at a more rapid scale."

Treatments include trimming fast-burning trees and applying prescribed fire to avoid out-of-control wildfires. The budget will continue to fund the 10-year average cost of controlling fires, and commit resources to the wildland-urban interface communities close to forested areas that at high risk of wildfire damage.

Other highlights

This year's White House budget request also includes:

  • $2.6 billion -- a five percent increase from last year's enacted level -- for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a wide-ranging research effort supported by more than a dozen federal agencies.
  • $8.4 billion for U.S. EPA, a $105 million decrease from 2012. The agency's proposed budget includes $201.5 million for climate change programs, a 19 percent increase (see related story).
  • $5.1 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up from $4.9 billion in 2012. This year's budget drops the "NOAA Climate Service" the White House proposed last year but seeks increased funding for the agency's climate research account (see related story).
  • $11.1 billion for the Interior Department, a 1 percent increase from the current funding level. The proposal includes $86 million for renewable energy programs, a 21 percent increase from the 2012 level.
  • $769 million for international climate change programs at the U.S. Treasury, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, close to 2012 funding levels (see related story).
  • $1.785 billion for Earth science programs at NASA, an increase of $25 million above the 2012 enacted level. The account includes funding for new satellites to monitor the planet's ice sheets, soil moisture, vegetation and precipitation.
  • $8 million in the U.S. Coast Guard budget to begin planning for a new polar icebreaker to revitalize America's aging fleet and prepare for new activity in the thawing Arctic (see related story).