What Trump’s fiscal plan means for the climate

By Jean Chemnick, Thomas Frank | 02/11/2020 06:54 AM EST

The White House laid out its policy priorities for a second Trump term yesterday, and climate change wasn’t on the agenda.

President Trump's fiscal 2021 budget calls for deep cuts to environmental programs.

President Trump's fiscal 2021 budget calls for deep cuts to environmental programs. Chris Kleponis/CNP/Polaris/Newscom

The White House laid out its policy priorities for a second Trump term yesterday, and climate change wasn’t on the agenda.

In fact, the word "climate" didn’t appear at all in the 138-page main budget document, which asked Congress for a total of $4.8 trillion to fund the president’s priorities across the federal government in fiscal 2021.

That figure would mean a slight increase in federal spending overall compared with the status quo and would enable the Trump administration to grow the military to include the U.S. Space Force and to fund favorite infrastructure projects like the border wall.


But the agencies that are most responsible for addressing climate change at home and abroad — including EPA and the departments of Energy and State — would see steep cuts under the proposal. And programs within those agencies that deal directly with climate change would take the biggest hit.

Congress, however, is almost certain to reject the budget blueprint as is.

For one thing, it violates a bipartisan agreement on spending that Congress reached last summer. In addition — even before Democrats gained control of the House — Congress routinely would override Trump’s efforts to slash funding for climate-related items such as EPA grants to states and DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a research and development program.

And this year Congress is likely to finish funding the federal government after November’s presidential election. The result likely will weigh heavily on the appropriations process.

But the budget document does provide a sneak peek of what Trump would like to do with a second term, including an extension to the 2017 tax cuts and continued efforts toward deregulation. And it includes his reelection pitch to voters — insomuch that it argues that his pro-business policies have resulted in a "blue-collar" economic boom that has benefited workers, especially those in the energy sector.

In the budget proposal, as in last week’s State of the Union address, Trump celebrated the United States’ arrival as a major oil and gas producer that’s set in 2020 to be a net petroleum exporter.

The shift began under President Obama, but Trump claimed credit for himself and his deregulatory policies.

"More jobs, lower costs, and American dominance — these are predictable results of our pro-energy policies," Trump wrote in his budget request.


The fiscal 2021 request would humble regulatory agencies.

EPA, which is celebrating half a century of existence this year, would receive $6.7 billion for fiscal 2021 — a 27% cut compared with enacted levels. It also would slash its workforce by about 11%, to the lowest levels since 1985.

The administration stressed in the budget and its supporting documents that this change would return EPA to its "core mission" of protecting "clean air, land and water, and ensuring chemical safety, while targeting emerging domestic and global environmental challenges."

It’s unclear whether the last part of that line is a veiled reference to climate change, but the issue isn’t mentioned by name in the EPA section of the main budget document. In an informal summary provided by EPA, it appears six times — mainly in the titles of programs slated for elimination.

EPA tangled with California last year over the state’s struggle to comply with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The budget asks Congress for a total of $437 million for EPA’s air quality work overall, down from the current funding level of $813 million. That includes reduced budgets for enforcement, science and technology, and other programs.

The air and energy research program, which supports future regulations, would lose two-thirds of its budget — a sign that EPA under Trump isn’t contemplating many new regulatory actions.

The budget request also would cut funding to implement the Montreal Protocol, a globally popular ozone treaty that’s now also phasing down hydrofluorocarbons — a powerful class of greenhouse gases used in cooling and refrigeration.

While there’s scant mention of climate change in EPA’s budget, the issue does appear in a section on "wasteful" spending items at EPA that the Trump administration has recommended for the chopping block.

The budget again proposes moving the Energy Star energy efficiency program — which is jointly administered by EPA and DOE — to a user-fee model that Congress previously has rejected. The same section also floated plans to zero out funding for several EPA climate change partnership programs including the Coalbed Methane Outreach Program, the Global Methane Initiative and Natural Gas STAR.

"These programs are not essential to EPA’s core mission and can be implemented by the private sector," it states.

Sean Alcorn, a legislative analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the proposal to cut full-time EPA staff from 14,172 positions to 12,610 would get rid of expertise at the agency — a move that could pay dividends for Trump’s anti-regulatory agenda even if he doesn’t win in November.

"This is trying to eviscerate the knowledge store that we have for future administrations," he said. "It’s setting EPA up to fail in future years."

State Department

The fiscal 2021 budget justification for the State Department includes one fleeting reference to climate change as an issue, like armed conflict and poverty, that is best solved through multilateral channels. But the Trump administration again proposes steep cuts to the top diplomatic agency of more than 21% to $40.8 billion, down from $53 billion enacted for fiscal 2020.

The scope of the cuts is difficult to gauge because the proposal eliminates some budget lines and combines others. But observers say the result would be deep reductions in U.S. support for multilateral and bilateral partnerships on the environment, renewable energy, adaptation, sustainable landscapes, forestry and other issues. Capitol Hill generally has rejected those moves and seems likely to do so again.

In the last two years, Congress has rejected Trump administration efforts to halve support for the Global Environment Facility, which funds projects in developing countries. The United States remains a top contributor to the fund despite efforts by the Trump administration to zero out funding for fiscal 2020.

"I think the message to the vulnerable countries that get support from the GEF and from other funds is to pay attention to what gets into the final appropriations bill and not what is said in these requests, because they are messaging documents," said Joe Thwaites, who follows climate finance for the World Resources Institute.

But funding for the United Nations’ high-profile Green Climate Fund is unlikely to be restored while Trump is in office. The fund has been a target for GOP lawmakers who have resisted Trump’s suggested cuts to other diplomatic budget lines.

FEMA, NASA, Army Corps of Engineers

Trump’s budget request proposes major cuts to disaster-response agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. But Congress previously has overridden similar proposals.

A cut of $1.7 billion in Army Corps funding, to $6 billion next year, would reduce the agency’s spending on flood control — but that is unlikely to be sustained. The administration wants to eliminate funding "for projects that are better suited to be carried out by states and local communities."

But Congress has given the Army Corps more money than administrations have requested since at least 2006 and has funneled increasing amounts in the past three years as intense flooding has damaged levees, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The administration is renewing its effort to eliminate a $10 million FEMA program, enacted in the final month of the Obama administration, that helps communities pay for repairs to "high-hazard" dams whose failure could result in loss of life. Such projects are "better suited to be carried out by states and local communities," the administration says in its budget proposal. Congress repeatedly has restored the funding.

The administration also is trying again to cut FEMA’s flood-mapping budget to $100 million from $263 million, saying that mapping the nation’s floodplains "is not solely a federal responsibility." Congress has blocked each attempted budget cut.

The administration could find agreement with Congress in overhauling a much-maligned disaster recovery program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Congress has given HUD $40 billion in emergency funding since 2017 to help communities rebuild from major disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017. But funding has been mired in huge delays because federal law requires HUD to undertake a long and detailed rulemaking process before it can release the money.

Congressional leaders from both parties — as well as advocates — are looking to revamp HUD’s disaster-recovery program so money can be allocated more quickly. The administration says in its budget proposal that it "seeks to work with the Congress to comprehensively reform and redesign" the HUD program, which it calls "slow, unpredictable, and wasteful."

The administration wants to eliminate funding for a NASA program that is developing an observatory to monitor Earth to better understand climate change.

NASA’s Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory would produce "highly accurate and trusted climate records" that can help produce policies on mitigation and adaptation "that address the effects of climate change on society," NASA says. The observatory is scheduled to launch in 2023.

The administration acknowledges the observatory "would provide additional capabilities over existing satellites" but says the project "is a lower priority compared to other NASA programs." The administration’s budget boosts funding for missions to land astronauts on the moon and Mars.

Interior and Energy

The Energy Department would see a cut of 8% compared with 2020 enacted levels, to $38.5 billion. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is again proposed for elimination, but Congress previously has shown no willingness to kill the popular research and development program.

The Interior Department would see its budget reduced 13% for fiscal 2021, to $12.8 billion.

House Democrats have accused the Trump administration of withholding funds from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Climate Adaptation Science Centers at Interior, which operate as partnerships with universities.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, pressed the matter during testimony from USGS Director James Reilly.

Reilly claimed ignorance during the April hearing. Afterward, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed Trump administration staffers were working to heed McCollum’s warning.

"Congress will pay attention to the implementation of this funding," according to a June meeting agenda for high-level staffers of USGS, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Reporter Adam Aton contributed.