ECONOMY:

Stimulus plan offers billions for climate research, energy efficiency and renewables

An economic stimulus plan released by House Democrats yesterday would pump more than $1 billion into climate science at federal agencies, including long-ailing environmental satellite programs.

The $825 billion proposal would also provide tens of billions of dollars for the programs to encourage energy efficiency and develop renewable and alternative fuels and technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emitted by power plants.

The House bill's strong emphasis on science agencies is unusual for a supplemental spending bill, let alone one aimed at propping up the sagging economy, experts said.

"I was shocked," said Kei Koizumi, who directs an American Association for the Advancement of Science program that tracks research and development spending at federal science agencies.

"I think it's notable that [in] a stimulus bill that's been promoted as a great short-term shot in the arm for the economy, long-term investments such as science and other infrastructure have such a prominent place," he said.

The bill includes about $400 million for climate change-related research at NASA and $600 million at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with many of those funds set aside to beef up satellite programs that provide scientists with environmental data that fuel weather predictions and climate models.

Cuts to the programs' budgets have riled the scientific community in recent years. In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences warned that belt-tightening at NOAA and NASA had put the United States' ability to monitor climate change and severe weather "at great risk." A panel of experts assembled by the academy recommended pumping about $500 million per year into satellite programs at the two agencies, which would bring their budgets back to Clinton-era funding levels.

But despite interest from congressional Democrats and, during the fiscal 2009 budget process, the White House, funding levels for the programs have stagnated.

Former NOAA chief 'ecstatic'

Experts familiar with the situation said they hoped the House proposal would be the start of renewed attention to climate science and the restoration of the United States' ability to monitor the Earth's climate.

"It's an excellent down payment," said Antonio Busalacchi, a University of Maryland scientist who led a National Academy of Sciences panel studying ways to mitigate the effects of the satellite budget cuts. "But they'd need about $540 million per year over five years to get back to 2002 spending levels."

Still, the stimulus could create "breathing space" for lawmakers, who will revisit fiscal 2009 funding in early March, when the current continuing budget resolution -- which freezes agencies' coffers at fiscal 2008 levels -- expires.

"Now we need to develop a national strategy for sustained, long-term observations of climate," he said. "That is what's missing. We need to get NOAA and NASA on the same page."

Former NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, who ran the agency for much of the Bush administration, said he was "ecstatic" about the House bill's plan to fund environmental satellite programs.

"It's a very well-crafted agreement to help us jump-start climate observing and get us back into the game," said Lautenbacher, who now runs his own consulting firm in Atlanta.

"These [satellite] systems really underpin the economy," Lautenbacher said. The environmental data they collect produce weather forecasts that help planes run on time, allow insurers to calculate the risks of storms and flooding, help farmers cope with drought and monitor the effectiveness of cap-and-trade programs and other schemes to avert dangerous climate change.

"The economy is not going to go anywhere without sound environmental information," Lautenbacher said.

Enough to fund a clean, coal-fired power plant

The House bill's other notable climate-related provisions include a proposal to set aside $2.4 billion for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects at the Energy Department.

That's about enough to cover the incremental costs of building a 1-gigawatt CCS-equipped power plant, said George Peridas, a science fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.

Luke Popovich, the head of the National Mining Association, a group that has pushed for greater federal investment in CCS development, said he was "very encouraged" by the amount of money the bill would set aside.

Other energy- and climate-related funding provisions in the House bill include:

  • $11 billion for research and development as well as pilot projects aimed at modernization of the electric grid, including building new power lines for renewable energy transmission.
  • $8 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy production and transmission projects.
  • $6.7 billion for the renovation and repair of federal buildings with the goal of making them more energy efficient.
  • $6.9 billion in block grants to state and local governments to make investments in energy efficiency and carbon reduction.
  • $2 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency research projects to be handed out to universities, companies and national laboratories.
  • $2 billion for the development of advanced vehicle battery systems.
  • $1.5 billion in grants to help school districts, universities, utilities and local governments become more energy efficient.

Package could end 5-year decline in science funding

Koizumi said it wasn't clear yet whether the bill's bottom-line budget would change as it moves through Congress. "Obviously, if the spending parts come under pressure, then there is definitely a strong possibility that some of the science numbers could come down," he said.

Federal spending on basic and applied science research has been declining, in real dollars, since 2004, he said.

Under the current continuing budget resolution for fiscal 2009, "we were headed for a fifth year in a row of decline," he said. "But there's enough research funding in this stimulus to bump 2009 back up to an increase."

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said yesterday that his panel would mark up the legislation next Wednesday, with floor action anticipated a week later on Jan. 28.

Obey said the Senate would likely take up its version the following week, leaving the two chambers with essentially one week to iron out the details before the Feb. 13 deadline set by Democratic leaders.

Obey said the House would move to approve the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill while the Senate is working on the stimulus bill during that first week in February.

The Senate has yet to release its version of the legislation, though it is expected to be similar but not identical (E&ENews PM, Jan. 15).

Reporter Christa Marshall contributed.

This story was updated at 2:35 p.m.