POLICY:

Conflicts over climate issues derail Senate EPA budget hearings

The first Senate hearing considering U.S. EPA's proposed 2012 budget quickly veered off course into skirmishes over the status of climate science and language passed in the House continuing resolution two weeks ago which prevented EPA from implementing greenhouse gas regulations, underscoring the challenges in budget discussions ahead.

Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.) walked Environment and Public Works Committee members down memory lane yesterday to point out media accounts in the 1970s that emphasized beliefs in so-called "global cooling" and to suggest that belief in climate science might be similarly upended.

"If we had committed the same amount of taxpayer resources and government manpower that the administration wants us to commit to prevent global warming to prevent global cooling, we would not be the most prosperous nation on earth," Barrasso said. "Advances in science and health care, diseases cured, children's lives saved would not be the reality we would have over those years. Millions of jobs would have needlessly been lost."

His comments put Democratic senators on the offensive, who said that such media accounts did not reflect the belief of mainstream scientists at the time. Debates on the science of climate change and its potential public health threats dominated a significant portion of yesterday's hearing.

In one of the few comments that did touch on the proposed fiscal 2012 budget, Inhofe called for a red pen to be taken to the budget in order to slash climate funding. As it stands now, the budget request is a "fiscal bait and switch" he said, saying the 13 percent in cuts as compared to the $10.3 billion fiscal 2010 level would not make it through Congress because they were mostly from clean water programs with bipartisan support.

"We've seen this before going back to the Bush administration," he said. "EPA proposes significant cuts that appear fiscally responsible, but in truth they are cuts EPA knows Congress will readily restore." The budget would be better served by slashing EPA's climate financing, he said.

Inhofe and Barrasso have offered bills that would handcuff EPA's ability to implement greenhouse gas regulations. Similar legislation is also under consideration in the House.

Saving lives or saving money?

In the heated partisan back-and-forth that occurred yesterday, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) told EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who was testifying on the budget, "Confidence is slipping away in what you are doing."

Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) countered that by pointing to a recent poll from the American Lung Association that found more than three-fourths of voters support stricter limits on carbon dioxide (ClimateWire, Feb. 17). If Americans do not have such protections, she said, it will hamper public health.

"Wise enforcement includes reductions in collateral costs," such as hospital bills, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) agreed.

Jackson echoed the message. "I am accountable for ensuring we squeeze every drop of public health protection out of every dollar we get," she said, pointing out she is also responsible for considering where cuts could harm public health.

"If Congress slashed EPA's funding, concentrations of carbon pollution would increase ... the result would be more asthma attacks, more missed school and work days ... and more premature deaths," she said.

Commenting on yesterday's hearing, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) told ClimateWire, "It's hard to talk about the 2012 budget until you finish the '11 budget. We have such a radical approach taken by the House budget for the '11 budget that it will certainly dominate the discussions."

While he praised the 2012 budget overall, he called for boosted funding for the state revolving funds for water projects, which were slashed by 27 percent in the fiscal 2012 budget proposal. "I hope Senator Inhofe would join me; I am prepared to look for reductions elsewhere," he said.

Cutting funding to climate change programming, however, is not the answer, he said. "Those programs are critically important."

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