From Self-Driving Cars To Clean Energy, Obama Lays Out His Plan For A Climate-Smart Economy

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Copies of the President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 federal budget are unpacked after being delivered to the House Budget Committee Room on Capitol Hill.

President Obama sent his final budget proposal to Congress Tuesday, and there’s a lot in there for environmentalists to love. Of the $4.1 trillion in proposed spending, more than $47 billion would be spent on programs related to the environment and climate change, from expanding climate resilience to greening the nation’s transportation system.

“We have made great strides to foster a robust clean energy industry and move our economy away from energy sources that fuel climate change,” Obama wrote in his introduction to the budget, outlining advances that have been made in renewable energy in the past few years.

“Despite these advances,” Obama continued, “we can and must do more. Rather than shrinking from the challenge, America must foster the spirit of innovation to create jobs, build a climate-smart economy of the future, and protect the only planet we have.”

Most, if not all, of these budget proposals are unlikely to pass through a Republican controlled Congress, so the document is more of an outgoing presidential wish-list than a hard-and-fast road map for the future. Still, here’s a breakdown of just how Obama’s proposed budget would create a climate-smart economy and a more sustainable national infrastructure:

Greening the transportation sector while taxing oil

One of the primary targets of the 2017 proposed budget is the transportation sector, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions — the second-highest sector behind electricity.

Google's new self-driving car during a demonstration.

Google’s new self-driving car during a demonstration.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File

A proposed $32 billion, ten-year plan would revamp the country’s transportation infrastructure by investing in things like mass-transit and clean vehicle research — $20 billion would go toward expanding mass-transit options, $10 billion toward clean-transportation infrastructure, and $2 billion toward expanding clean-transportation research and development. One part of the proposed transportation overhaul that has gotten considerable attention is the nearly $4 billion that Obama has proposed putting towards creating and deploying driverless cars within the decade.

To pay for those programs and expansions, Obama has proposed levying a $10.25 per barrel tax on oil, which his administration estimates would raise an additional $319 billion in revenue over the next decade. When the tax was first announced last week, however, Republican leaders in Congress deemed it “dead on arrival.”

Increasing spending on clean energy research

Obama’s proposed budget also calls for a doubling in spending on clean energy research, from $6.4 billion to $12.8 billion by 2021.

“As I said in my State of the Union address, rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future,” Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday, when his proposed doubling of clean energy research was first announced. “That’s why the budget I will send to Congress this Tuesday will double funding for clean energy research and development by 2020. This will include new investments to help the private sector create more jobs faster, lower the cost of clean energy faster, and help clean, renewable power outcompete dirty fuels in every state.”

In this April 3, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in front of a solar array at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

In this April 3, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in front of a solar array at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

Obama’s proposal comes on the heels of the Paris climate agreement, where nearly 200 nations from around the world agreed to work to limit global temperature rise to well-below 2 degrees Celsius, as compared to pre-industrial temperatures. During the conference, 20 countries — including the United States — announced that they would double their budgets for clean energy research by 2020.

The proposal included in the 2017 budget represents the first time that one of those 20 countries has outlined specifics for how they envision doubling their clean energy investment in a matter of years.

Helping Alaska adapt to climate change

The president’s proposed budget also includes some $400 million — set aside from the larger $2 billion Coastal Climate Resilence program — to help cover the “unique circumstances confronting vulnerable Alaskan communities, including relocation expenses for Alaska Native villages threatened by rising seas, coastal erosion, and storm surges.”

This summer, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Arctic Alaska, a region that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. While there, he made several speeches calling attention to the impact climate change is already having in the region — from displacing communities to damaging infrastructure — and pledged to intensify efforts to help Alaskans deal with the consequences of global warming.

President Barack Obama looks at Bear Glacier, which has receded 1.8 miles in approximately 100 years.

President Barack Obama looks at Bear Glacier, which has receded 1.8 miles in approximately 100 years.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In addition to setting aside funds to help Alaskan communities relocate, the budget also includes $100 million — split across several federal agencies — to help support planning and infrastructure in the Alaskan villages most threatened by climate change. These programs include things like helping communities better maintain their subsistence activities, gain better access to USDA programs, and install clean energy infrastructure. The budget also includes a proposal to give the Denali Commission — an independent federal agency created to help with economic development in Alaska — an additional $19 million aimed at helping communities adapt to climate change.

Obama’s proposed budget also provides $150 million to accelerate the construction on a new polar-class icebreaker, to be completed by 2020. Currently, the United States only has one functioning icebreaker, which was built in the 1970s.

Protecting clean water

The president’s 2017 proposed budget also includes a $300 million plan to overhaul the nation’s water system — something that has gained national attention in recent months as residents in Flint, Michigan face an on-going public health crisis due to the presence of lead in their public drinking water.

The western hemisphere's largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA.

The western hemisphere’s largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

“In the United States, the investment in R&D for clean energy is 50 times the investment in R&D for water,” Ali Zaidi, associate director for natural resources, energy, and science in the Office of Management and Budget told Fast Company. “It’s going to take a lot to turn that around.”

The proposal includes seven specific ideas, but in the Fast Company interview, Zaidi zeroed in on two proposals: one that would create a hub for desalination research with the aim of eventually making obtaining water from the ocean cost-competitive with water from rivers and lakes, and another that would develop new prediction techniques to better alert communities to the threat of floods and droughts. As climate change is expected to increase the likelihood of both extreme rainfall events — which can trigger floods — and droughts, increasing a community’s ability to predict these events could save both water resources and lives.

The proposed budget also calls for adding $158 million to an EPA program that helps cities and states update their existing water infrastructure through low-interest loans and grants. According to Politico, however, the president is proposing to pay for that addition by making cuts to an existing EPA program aimed at reducing pollution at the source. Lawmakers from both parties, as well as environmental groups, have criticized these cuts.

Investing in land conservation

Land and water conservation got a significant nod in the proposed budget, with the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a fund that began in 1965 and expired late last year — receiving full funding in 2017 and annual mandatory funding beginning in 2018. The 2017 budget also invests $900 million — taken from revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling — in conservation and recreation projects.