interviews

How Did Climate and Clean Energy Programs Fare in the 2018 Federal Budget?

0
An interview with Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Climate and Energy Program
How Did Climate and Clean Energy Programs Fare in the 2018 Federal Budget?
Courtesy of Florida Power & Light

The president of the United States was angry.

Stalking into the Diplomatic Room of the White House, with Vice President Mike Pence and cabinet members and staffers trailing behind him, President Donald Trump seemed in a particularly foul mood.

He didn't dispel that impression when he told the assembled pool of reporters he intended to talk about "the ridiculous situation that took place over the last week."

Trump was talking about the negotiations that led to the $1.3 trillion government spending bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday and the U.S. Senate in the early hours of Friday morning.

Passage of the bill averted a shutdown of the federal government. But Trump drew little consolation from that fact. Many things he said he wanted in were out of the spending plan. Many things he opposed were left in, and even granted additional funding.

Early Friday morning, at a time when most Americans living in the eastern U.S. were eating breakfast, the president announced on Twitter he was going to veto the whole thing.

The problem was, after passing the spending bill Congress had adjourned for a two-week recess. If Trump vetoed the bill, no one was left in town to try to revamp the plan at hand or even pass a stopgap measure to keep the government running.

Trump had to back down.

Arriving for the bill-signing ceremony, the president huffed, "As you know, [negotiating something like this] it's always been a problem for our country. They get together and they create a series of documents that nobody has been able to read because it was just done."

Later, he added: "There are a lot of things that I'm unhappy about in this bill. There are a lot of things that we shouldn't have had in this bill, but we were, in a sense, forced ... but I say to Congress, 'I will never sign another bill like this again. I'm not going to do it again.' Nobody read it. It’s only hours old. Some people don't even know what's in it."

Earlier this year, Trump had proposed a federal budget that included many sweeping cuts to programs related to renewable energy, climate change and science in general.

The good news for those who care about these areas is that Congress either retained or actually increased funding for them. To get the low-down, Renewable Energy Magazine spoke with Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Climate and Energy Program.

The president's proposed budget called for some pretty significant cuts to programs related to renewable energy, climate change and science in general. Almost all of those proposed cuts were eliminated from the spending bill he actually signed. What are people to take away from that?

Rob Cowin: The president's proposed budget is supposed to be an extension of the priorities of the administration. When it came to his FY 2018 budget request it was clear, at least to me, that those priorities were very misguided.

This notion of cutting us off at the knees with respect to clean energy research and development, and the science and technological tools that we have at our disposal to do things like forecast weather ... these things are just so important to the average person that it was hard to believe [this stance] was anything but a negotiating tactic.

And I think that's been his approach to the budget. He's looking at this process and saying to himself, "Okay, this is a business negotiation. So I go high, they go low and we meet in the middle."

But that's just not how Congress works, and that's not a good posture to adopt in terms of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.

So I think what you saw on Friday was a repudiation of that approach and those priorities set forth by the president. Congress said, "No. We're not going to stop pursuing research and development for clean energy. We're not going to stop studying climate change. We're going to bolster more efforts on the front end to deal with these impacts."

Objectively, you have to say the administration failed in advancing its budget priorities.

One of the priorities we've heard a lot about since President Trump took office was his desire to greatly expand fossil fuel production in the U.S. -- at the expense of renewables. But renewable energy, as a sector, actually did okay in this budget, didn't it?

Rob Cowin: It did. And that's a testament to the way people see clean energy on Capitol Hill. There are a lot of issues related to public health and the environment that have become politicized, and a big driver of investment in renewables in concern about the environment and clean air.

Of course, not everyone, depending on their political persuasion, values that in the same way. But there are a lot of other reasons to prioritize federal support for renewables: everything from energy security to the fact it is very good for rural communities.

And there are enough Republicans who don't want to be cut out of a $100 billion market for renewable energy, and who need it because they represent districts where their rural constituents really depend on distributed energy and emerging renewable technologies.

So the reality is, renewable energy isn't as politically divisive an issue and some other budget items are, and I think that was reflected in the amount of support the sector received with bipartisan support.

Generally speaking, when people think renewables, they think wind and solar. Were wind and solar the big winners in this spending bill?

Rob Cowin: The Senate bill slightly increased overall spending for the energy efficiency and renewable energy program, spending caps [in other areas] giving them the latitude to do so.

Clearly, when you look at the budget bill, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) was one of the areas they focused on. All of the technology offices within EERE certainly did better than they would [under the president's proposed budget].

If there's one thing that stands out it is, that it appears energy storage is being understood to be a bigger priority. There were cuts in some areas of the Office of Electricity, and only very marginal increases in others, but when it comes to energy storage that got the biggest increase of any area, other than cyber security, in the Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability.

Grid modernization and the technology associated with it is a real place where you are seeing a lot of bipartisan support.

In terms of renewables generally, what you're seeing is that Republicans are embracing them because they represent a pro-growth opportunity, and a lot of their constituents are embracing them as well.

For instance, Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a big believer in renewable energy, though he has strong feelings about some technologies relative to others. But what it looks like happened here was that there was a compromise, generally, among people who wanted to see more low carbon energy created and wanted to keep our clean energy innovation primacy intact.

Here’s how some important Climate and Clean Energy programs fared in the federal FY18 omnibus spend plan passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on Friday (Data courtesy the Union of Concerned Scientists).


President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. Is that about-face from the Obama years reflected in this budget? Do members of Congress draw a distinction between supporting renewables and supporting climate science?

Rob Cowin: Yes. I think they do. Because you don't have to drink the climate Kool Aid to support renewables. You don't have to be somebody who desperately cares about climate to care about or see the value in renewables.

Let's face it, we got a first-hand lesson last year about how dangerous extreme weather can be to energy reliability and public safety. So when it comes to things like preparedness and when it comes to things like energy security, people see those investments differently from how they see the science.

It's almost like there's this acknowledgement, "Let's do things for the impacts" and "Let's do things for the reasons that suit our ideological beliefs, but we don't necessarily have to all agree that we are doing it for the same reasons."

Focusing on "interests" rather than on "positions" has been very beneficial for renewables. It seems to be more of a uniting approach. Many Republicans see renewables as something they can support without being grouped into an environmental, liberal contingent.

At the heart of it, I would argue, is that this really is about energy freedom. It really is. To be able to have more control, from a consumer standpoint, over how you get and produce your electricity, and be less vulnerable to other factors.

And if you're living in Alaska or some of our rural communities, it is almost becoming a necessity to create and rely on an energy portfolio that prioritizes things like micro grids and renewable resources. There are  just too many pragmatic reasons for people not to be supportive of clean energy -- regardless of their political ideology.

So how did climate science do in this spending plan?

Rob Cowin: There I think you saw, very clearly, that they just wanted to "CR" it, extend funding through a [so-called continuing resolution]. Which is what they've been doing historically, because Congress has, in many cases, not been able to arrive at consensus on a budget. Instead, we go from point to point, extending the funding each time we reach a new deadline.

This is particularly true in the case of issues on which there is no consensus and where there are strong feelings on each side. In these cases, they essentially leave it alone. And that's kind of what you saw here with climate science. They pretty much left those programs that are focused on science and research on the climate alone. I'd describe them as having received level funding, and that's an indication that the issue of climate change is far more politicized than issues around clean energy and preparedness.

Now you've just used the phrase "level funding," which I'm taking to mean that climate science research saw no dramatic increase or decrease in funding. But what is the level of funding for these programs?

Rob Cowin: Given the scope and seriousness of the issue, there's no doubt we should probably be investing a lot more in climate science, and in the technology and analysis that we need to make better decisions and truly understand the effects and changes that are taking place, in some cases, faster than we can keep up with them.

That said, given the current political environment, where you have an administration that's literally hostile to the issue and publicly denigrates climate change as a real issue, and you have a very conservative Congress that's controlled by a party whose platform is not to address the issue, any rational person would probably say level funding is a win.

But if you're really thinking about the clock and what climate change means and that stagnation is ultimately as bad for us as doing something bad ... then you have to look at the situation as one in which politicization is causing an inertia that's [blunting] our ability to do what we need to with respect to understanding this phenomena and how we can get out ahead of it. And that's the concern.

This issue of science has become so politicized that even though there's a real need to increase funding for climate science, it's just too hot of an issue politically and too little consensus with respect to the parties, for them to do that. I think you saw that reflected in this bill.

Now, that's the concern, but as I said, there are different ways of looking at this, and given the political climate we're in, it's really hard to see that as a true failure of the bill.

One of things I find interesting in covering Washington is that you can look at an agency, like the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headed by Scott Pruitt, a climate science denier, or the Department of Energy, which has been given a mandate to promote coal and other fossil fuels, and yet day after day, quietly, positive things are getting done with respect to renewable energy and energy efficiency and so on ...

 Rob Cowin: This is the classic dichotomy between Congress mandating certain things as law, and the administration being bound to carry out the will of Congress.

So there are things an agency can do that actually go against the intentions of Congress, but there's a lot that they can't do if Congress has mandates for something to be done through law.

So in the case of Energy Secretary Rick Perry or any other department head within the administration, they are not going to ignore the law. They are going to pursue the endeavors that Congress has laid out for them.

The other thing is, in Rick Perry's case, he's got a personal history, as governor of Texas, of seeing the business development and opportunity that comes when a state prioritizes investments in renewables and grid transmission.

I have been a little concerned since he joined the administration that he has forgotten that or has not been able to be his own person, but it's a delicate balance that he has to walk. On the one hand, he works for the president and his job is to advance the president's priorities, but he also has a responsibility to Congress and to the law.

And I think you are seeing how different those two things really are with respect to the rhetoric of the administration and the budget. And I think Perry is caught in the middle and he's trying to satisfy these two very different constituencies. That's the way I read how the Department of Energy is working right now.

Closely aligned with climate, of course, is weather. How did the National Weather Service fare in this spending bill. Does the administration realize weather is important?

Rob Cowin: [Laughs]  I think they realize weather is important. I think they don't want to acknowledge that there are factors, like climate change, that are significant contributors to the unpredictability and intensity of extreme weather and that's the problem. In order to really get out ahead and understand the phenomena we're seeing -- stronger storms -- you really have to understand the root causes that are feeding the problem. And if you ignore that, you are really handicapping the country. You're compromising public safety and exacerbating disruptions to commerce. I don't think it's a very mature approach.

So, I think the administration does understand the importance of being able to respond to extreme weather and protect the citizenry. It's just really hard to do that if you are not going to recognize climate change as a main contributor to the challenge you face.

The budget does include increases for things that strengthen our ability to accurately predict and track weather. Things like the National Weather Service did see increases in its budget.

But anything that could be identified as climate specific -- even if it was atmospheric in nature -- those things tended to be left alone, not increased.

The National Satellite Data and Information Service actually took a small cut -- and that's our satellite system that feeds data and information to the National Weather Service. But that said, all of the satellites that we identified around the issue of climate were fully funded, and I think that's probably more due to the support and leverage of Democrats than it was something that was bipartisan.

So it's kind of a mixed bag. The closer you get to a direct connection with weather, those programs and tools and technologies seem to be better supported. The closer you get to studying climate as a phenomena or issue, separate from weather, it had less support.

A lot of technological advancement in energy, and a lot of other areas, is a byproduct of the nation's space program. How did the National Aeronautic and Space Administration fare in the spending plan?

Rob Cowin: NASA did very well, especially in the space exploration area. I don't know of many people who don't love NASA and think it's important to our country and want to support it.

Of course, that has to be balanced against other fiscal priorities. But what you are seeing is an administration and a Congress that's very supportive of this idea of more space exploration and continuing U.S. primacy in that area.

I will say though that the dichotomy there is that NASA's mission is also important relative to Earth science. Space exploration is critically important, but being able to really understand the natural phenomena on the planet is something NASA has an unique capability to do. We rely on that. And you saw that aspect of the agency's funding remain level.

So there's clearly a priority for space exploration relative to Earth-observing systems. But ironically, it's those Earth-observing systems that probably produce the most benefits to real people on the ground and effect everything from agricultural commerce to things like making sure infrastructure is built to certain specifications to understanding what warming is doing to the oceans.

That's really where you see the starkness in the policy. Climate is political; Space exploration is not.

The budget has been signed. What's next for the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Rob Cowin: Well, looking at the what just unfolded in Washington, it does prove that we have willing partners to work with on Congress, on both sides of the aisles.

Going forward one of our priorities will be to continue to educate members of Congress about the value of some of these investments. On a personal level, I don't like to invest in anything that I don't think is valuable, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that perspective. So continuing to connect the dots for members of Congress about why these investments matter to their states, and why it matters to the welfare of the country, and why we simply can't do without things like Earth science ... is very important.

One thing people don't realize is there is a deficit of education on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are very busy, they work on a wide range of issues, they have limited staff, and so they have a limited capacity and time to really be educated about the value of certain issues and policy priorities.

That is the role of a public interest advocacy group like ours, but also one that's science-based and rooted in analytics. We will continue to leverage that and educate members about the need to continue to support these programs and also to give them support for what they've already done and validate what they're doing.

The other thing is, we just got through the FY 2018 budget process, but as you know, that only gets us through September. Now we have to immediately turn our attention to FY 2019.

The good news is we have some strong consensus around some of the issues we care about personally -- like clean energy. Now we have to identify the areas where we need more support and really begin to educate lawmakers on why continued or increased investments in these areas are good for the country.

And then we also have to make sure we don't backslide in any way. We can't take our foot off the pedal when it comes to climate science and clean energy innovation. We don't want to give members an excuse to basically say, "We increased it or kept it level last time, now we're going to do cuts." We have to constantly remind them their constituents care about this.

Add a comment