For months, President Donald Trump has been promising to make significant cuts to the federal government. He directed all agencies this week to figure out where they could hack programs and told the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to start thinking about a massive reorganization.
And on Thursday, the White House unveiled the so-called “skinny budget,” a top-line draft of Trump’s fiscal proposals for 2018. The cuts are deep, but they are also non-specific. Where they do call out programs, they are often relatively cheap, effective ones, such as efficiency investments. These are the cuts of a cleaver, not a scalpel.
According to OMB Director Mike Mulvaney, it will fall to Trump’s cabinet to trim the frayed remaining edges of their respective departments. And that, actually, might be even more worrying than a Trump-led bludgeoning.
“We did set top-line numbers… but gave them a tremendous amount of flexibility in their own agencies this year,” Mulvaney told reporters on a call Wednesday.
Trump’s cabinet is remarkably pro-fossil fuels and anti-climate action. So while members of Congress have said this budget is “dead on arrival,” because it cuts too many programs that are too dear to the U.S. public, it offers a clear indication of what, exactly, they will be fighting over.
The Environmental Protection Agency
The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed budget is $5.7 billion — $300 million less than earlier estimates, and 31 percent less than 2016. More than 50 EPA programs will be cut entirely.
“We worked very closely with [EPA head Scott] Pruitt… to prioritize things at EPA,” Mulvaney said. “We absolutely believe, again, that as with State [Department], core functions of the EPA can be satisfied… with this budget.”
The budget “discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts — saving over $100 million for the American taxpayer compared to 2017 annualized CR levels. Consistent with the President’s America First Energy Plan, the Budget reorients EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.”
Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma, is not exactly who environmentalists want to be leaning on to prioritize environmental protections. Pruitt openly rejects the scientific consensus on climate change.
Pruitt has made no secret of his strong allegiance to “industry.” In one of his first tweets as EPA administrator, Pruitt said he looked forward to working with the agency’s stakeholders — and the first stakeholder he named was industry.
I’m dedicated to working w/stakeholders – industry, farmers, ranchers, business owners – on traditional values of environmental stewardship.
— Administrator Pruitt (@EPAScottPruitt) February 17, 2017
It hasn’t gotten much better since then.
Earlier this month, Pruitt retracted an EPA request for information about how much methane oil and gas producers were leaking. At the time, it was widely reported that the move came after a letter from several governors of oil- and gas-producing states, but last week, Pruitt clarified exactly who his EPA is working for.
“We’ve withdrawn that [request], after hearing from industry,“ Pruitt said during an interview with CNBC.
This week, Pruitt postponed an EPA rule meant to prevent explosions and accidents at refineries and other industrial sites. Again, this move came at the behest not of the people the EPA is supposed to protect, but at that of polluters themselves. As Politico reported in a newsletter, Pruitt said that “after receiving a petition from an industry coalition, he has decided to reconsider the rule.”
Those are just a few examples of Pruitt’s close relationship with oil, gas, and agriculture interests, and they offer a window into how he sees his role at the EPA. It’s expected that he will cut many programs within the agency — particularly those that seek to hold polluters accountable.
As Oklahoma’s top legal official, he was in the process of suing to stop the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which is intended to reduce emissions from the electricity sector. In the coming days, the Trump administration is expected to start the long, litigious path to dismantling the CPP, and in the new budget, funding for implementing the program has been cut.
One program Pruitt may continue — if his testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing can be believed— is a commitment to remediating brownfields. He has said that cleaning up contaminated sites will be a “priority.”
However, the new budget says it “reins in Superfund administrative costs and emphasizes efficiency efforts by funding the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account at $762 million, $330 million below the 2017 annualized CR level.”
Pruitt has also pledged to support the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Funds and the Water Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act loan program. As loan programs, these are not traditional expenditures, but they still need to be funded. They were not specifically named in the budget, but they appear to be funded.
Pruitt magnanimously pledged to continue voluntary lead testing programs at schools “if funding is provided.” Since it seems Pruitt will be deciding where his agency’s limited funding will go, it’s difficult to parse that passive statement.
Department of Energy
The Department of Energy also faces massive cutbacks in Trump’s skinny budget, which may come as a surprise to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who testified that he would protect research and development initiatives that Trump campaigned on cutting.
DOE’s proposed budget is $28 billion, 5.6 percent less than 2016. Of the remaining funds, $1.4 billion will be transferred from other programs to boost “nuclear capabilities.” Specific program cuts include the Weatherization Assistance Program and the State Energy Program.
The Energy Star program, which is jointly housed at the EPA and the Energy Department, will also be cut.
While the EPA has purview over protecting our air and water, DOE plays a critical role in shaping the technology that impacts not only our clean air and water, but also our economy. DOE is responsible for funding the research that ultimately led to the fracking boom, but it is also responsible for funding much of the research that has led to the solar energy boom.
DOE’s loan program gave us Tesla. DOE’s loan program has been cut.
DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which makes grants and supports reduced and clean energy, will be focused “on limited, early-stage applied energy research and development activities.”
It was not immediately clear what changes will be made to the programs out of that office — generally small investment, high return programs that support the U.S. economy. Cutting these programs, and, in fact, many of the programs Trump has targeted, would face extraordinary opposition from Congress, which controls federal funds.
“As weak as Congressional Republicans have been so far, funding starts and stops with Congress,” Jonathan Levy, who served as deputy chief of staff to former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, told ThinkProgress via email. “Presidents set priorities and issue veto threats, but Congress will fund what they want to fund.”
Levy pointed out that the country’s national labs “have strong bipartisan and bicameral support because they are economic engines. People from grad students to pharmaceutical company researchers use beam lines and other user facilities at the DOE national labs, and cutting their funding is bad for basic science, job growth, and future innovations.”
Ultimately, all the programs that are in the 2016 budget were approved by Congress last year. That includes programs that have been funded for decades — approved, year after year, by the elected representatives of these United States. Trump may have won the electoral college, but it’s hard to imagine that constituent priorities have changed as much as the 2017 budget does.
The Paris climate agreement (State Department)
One place where the budget will likely see less battle, though, is on foreign aid, which Republican congress members have also pushed for eliminating.
For climate concerns, that means looking at the State Department’s role in the Paris agreement. On one hand, the Paris agreement isn’t about money, it’s about reducing emissions. On the other hand, it is about helping the entire world transition to clean energy — and that takes money.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he supports keeping the United States in the Paris climate agreement, the historic 2015 accord between nearly every country in the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will take no funding to nominally stay in the Paris agreement.
But not only has Trump has threatened to withdraw from the agreement — he has been very clear that no foreign aid will go to climate mitigation. The new State Department and USAID budget is 28 percent less than in 2016.
The proposed budget “eliminates the Global Climate Change Initiative and fulfills the President’s pledge to cease payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds.”
The new budget is considered “America First” and “hard power,” not “soft power,” as Mulvaney characterized it. The Department of Defense is getting a $52 billion increase. The days of transferring money overseas are over — unless it’s in the form of military spending. The State Department, whose mission is to conduct foreign diplomacy and advise the president on foreign affairs, will have its hands tied.
One of the Obama administration’s last moves was to transfer $500 million — the country’s commitment for 2017 — to the UN’s Green Climate Fund. The Green Climate Fund supports low-carbon and resilience projects in developing nations. It’s a perfect example of soft power: bringing low-pollution energy and safety projects to countries in need.
So far, the United States has given $1 billion, $2 billion shy of the country’s total commitment. Under Trump, no more funding will be forthcoming.
Everything else is also climate related
Bloomberg published a story Wednesday saying the Obama administration had buried climate policy — and climate action funding — across many departments in order to “protect” the funding.
It’s true that many agencies are working on climate action, from readiness to mitigation to simple data collection. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is housed in the Department of Commerce and looks pretty shaky, plays key role. Under the proposed budget, the satellite program will continue. However, “over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant,” have been cut. (Commerce overall got a 10 percent budget increase.)
NASA, which up until now has studied the Earth’s climate, as well as space, reports directly to the White House. Four “Earth science missions” have been cut.
In the Department of the Interior, you have the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, two agencies that play integral roles in the country’s oil, gas, coal, wind, and solar energy development. While the 12 percent decrease in DOI’s budget could have an impact — neither bureau’s budget was specifically outlined — it’s more likely that policy changes will play a bigger role in preventing the United States from meeting its climate goals than budget changes.
The Department of Agriculture’s water and wastewater loan and grant program — $498 million — has been cut.
All of these parts of the U.S. government, as well as many others, have worked to improve the country’s climate and environmental policy, but it’s incorrect to assume the only reason to spread climate policy throughout the government is to avoid cuts.
Climate change is the central, existential issue of our time. It is not an issue that one agency, or even one government, can address alone. And it touches every aspect of human life — agriculture, housing, transportation, health and well-being, and more.
There is no part of this country’s policies that should be ignoring climate change.
But as the new administration rolls out its new budget, climate change policies will to be the first to go.