Budget deal points to realities of warming — sort of

Source: Josh Kurtz, Niina Heikkinen and Benjamin Hulac, E&E News reporters • Posted: Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The bipartisan two-year budget deal that Congress passed at dawn Friday not only boosts federal spending by more than $500 billion, but appears to include robust government funding for climate-related programs.

But no one is calling it that.

Because it isn’t exactly that.

What’s clear is that the spending plan includes about $90 billion for disaster relief from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the wildfires that raged through California in the fall. Just about every federal agency receives some level of funding for disaster-related programs.

The budget bill, which runs several hundred pages long, often doesn’t spell out how the money is to be spent. But to the extent that severe weather is exacerbated by climate change, the spending plan provides evidence, in black and white, that the government is making vast sums of money available for environmental remediation.

And even though President Trump has suggested climate change is a “hoax” and the Republican Congress is dominated by climate skeptics, the budget deal provides some agencies, including NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers, with money to study weather patterns and to plan and prepare for the consequences of disasters caused or accelerated by climate change.

Not that environmentalists are ready to break out the Champagne and declare a new day for the climate debate on Capitol Hill. But some will acknowledge that the spending outline represents a measure of progress.

“It’s a move in the right direction,” said Liz Perera, director of climate policy at the Sierra Club. “It doesn’t necessarily say one needs to take climate change into account. You would hope that would be obvious.”

Perera said there appears to be a realization among lawmakers that storms and other natural disasters are becoming more violent and damaging, even if they don’t want to discuss the causes.

“I think that the reality is that both parties don’t want to waste money to rebuild something that’s going to get destroyed by the next hurricane,” she said. “I think there’s a commonsense story of why would we rebuild without using the best science? Of course, no one’s saying that.”

Tax incentives

The budget deal offers a road map of the diverse impacts that extreme weather has across the federal government and the nation. It also points to the damage that last year’s trio of major hurricanes left behind.

Under the deal, the Department of Energy received $8.7 million to repair damage to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve due to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Gulf Coast lawmakers had been pushing for money to shore up the reserve — stored in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana, it’s the largest backup supply of oil worldwide. DOE also received $13 million to bolster power grids from the “consequences” of the storms.

As storms get stronger and more common, and as more people live on coastlines, hurricanes will “substantially” affect the lives of 10 million Americans by 2075, a fivefold increase, according to figures the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released in November.

After many major storms, workers and students can get help from Washington, D.C., in the form of retraining and school assistance. The law signed Friday allocated $2.7 billion for the Department of Education to spend on disaster relief following the hurricanes and wildfires. That money can be used to restart classes, defray costs of enrolling displaced students, buy new supplies and pay teachers.

The Department of Labor serves a similar role for the workforce. It got $100 million in “dislocated workers assistance” funding for people harmed by the disasters of 2017.

Officials at the Energy, Education and Labor departments did not respond to questions Friday on how they plan to use the money and how many people are eligible for help under their programs.

At U.S. EPA, Congress put money toward addressing toxic spills, designating $6.2 million for the agency’s “Hazardous Substances Superfund” and $7 million for the “Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund.”

The budget deal notes that EPA has already appropriated funds for Hurricanes Irma and Maria that could be used for projects that “reduce flood damage risk and vulnerability or to enhance resiliency to rapid hydrological change or a natural disaster at treatment works.”

Also on the climate front, the spending deal preserves tax incentives for renewable energy sources, electric vehicles and energy efficiency programs.

In at least one instance, Congress took direct aim at CO2 emissions by expanding tax credits for carbon capture utilization and storage projects. These projects are designed to reduce carbon emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants by capturing carbon and then either reusing it or storing it so that it cannot re-enter the atmosphere.

Projects sequestering captured carbon would see their tax credits more than double under the new law. It also clarifies what types of projects would qualify for credits (Greenwire, Feb. 9).

The expansion of credits has attracted bipartisan support in Congress, including from such disparate members as Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). In a statement late Friday, the Clean Air Task Force said, “This will stimulate the development of projects and ultimately help make technology costs affordable around the world, as similar incentives have done for wind and solar.”

Late last year, EPA’s newly appointed air chief, Bill Wehrum, said the agency would be considering the viability of carbon capture technology, along with other facility-level efficiency improvements (Climatewire, Dec. 13, 2017).

The incentives package brought a swift rebuke for Republicans from the American Energy Alliance, a nonprofit research organization with a free-market philosophy.

“The spending deal revives, and even expands, a whole host of special tax provisions that subsidize things like biodiesel, wind, nuclear, carbon capture technologies and so on,” said Kenny Stein, the group’s policy director. “This spending bill is not what the members of the majority campaigned on. This spending bill is not draining the swamp, it fills it further. Sticking future generations with the bill for today’s subsidies is wrong. A few short years ago, the majority party seemed to understand that. This is just disappointing.”

Shifting political priorities

In fact, that apparent reversal by congressional Republicans — from fretting about deficits and government spending during the Obama administration to adding almost $2 trillion to the deficit, between the new spending plan and recently adopted federal tax cuts — overshadowed the entire debate last week and suggests a reordering of the nation’s politics.

It’s why Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held up the deal at the last minute late Thursday night, calling the GOP’s newfound willingness to embrace deficits “the very definition of intellectual dishonesty.”

The frenetic last-minute votes on the spending plan in the House and Senate did not fall along simple partisan lines.

In the Senate, where it passed 71-28, opponents included the chamber’s most conservative senators and progressive Democrats, including half a dozen who might run for president in 2020. Other “no” votes included Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California who need to protect their left flank against primary challengers.

The pattern repeated itself in the House, where 67 Republicans and 119 Democrats opposed the measure. It passed 240-186.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the deal represent a “bipartisan abdication of responsibility.”

“This agreement dramatically worsens the deficit,” he said. “Just a few weeks after enacting a $1.5 trillion tax cut without any provisions to pay for it, Congress has decided to put at least $400 billion more on the ‘credit card.’ At present, neither party nor the president can make any claim of fiscal responsibility.”