Budgets get written over many late night meetings. The President and Vice President convene to discuss the budget with House Speaker John Boehner, right, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget boosts clean energy development and infrastructure but has been slammed by opponents of deficit spending. Elana Schor reports for Greenwire and E&E Publishing. She tells host Bruce Gellerman what’s in the budget and what’s missing.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
It's hard to comprehend 3.8 trillion dollars. That's the amount President Obama is proposing in his just-released federal budget for 2013. But imagine a stack of crisp one hundred dollar bills 260 miles high and you have some idea.
Of that, less than three miles would go to pay for federal environmental programs. Elana Schor covers budget issues for Greenwire, an environment and energy daily in D.C. We talked about the president's spending proposals for the Departments of the Interior and Energy and the EPA.
SCHOR: Really the most notable part of the EPA's budget wasn't even the numbers to me, it was the degree to which in its language the budget stood by these regulations the EPA is about to put out. Buried within this budget was a phrase, “we need to start imposing these emission regulations for power plants...before it's too late.” That was the actual phrasing.
GELLERMAN: Well, here's Secretary of the EPA Lisa Jackson when she unveiled the agency's budget.
JACKSON: This budget reflects a government-wide effort to reduce spending and find cost savings, while still supporting the clean air, healthy waters and innovative safeguards that are essential to an America built to last.
SCHOR: The phrase ‘built to last’ is a phrase that you can hear a lot from the president and folks on the campaign trail. So what we're seeing is an administration that's gearing up, you know, as most or any would, to run for re-election and use all of its tools to court voters. I mean, she's speaking directly to maybe independent voters in swing states who will say, "Oh, right, well, I like what she's doing. She's protecting the air for my kids." This is, this is re-election mode.
GELLERMAN: Elana, when you say ‘built to last,’ that's a Chevy slogan, right?
SCHOR: Funny, right? Yeah, auto bailout, borrow their slogan.
GELLERMAN: But that's an expression I guess almost all of the secretaries have been using.
SCHOR: Oh, definitely. It's a talking point straight from the White House, to start using that phrase.
GELLERMAN: Well, let's move down the street to the Department of Energy. Their budget request last year was 29.5 billion dollars; their request this year is 27.2 billion dollars.
SCHOR: In the top line number, as we say in Washington, it looks flat or a little bit below, but embedded within that are some serious increases for efficiency and renewables programs. We're talking about more than half a billion dollars for the Energy Department's clean stuff that Republicans had seriously taken aim at last year, so even though the administration isn't giving new money to the DOE loan program that has sparked this whole Solyndra flap, it is sort of sticking by the clean energy that the president is selling on the trail.
GELLERMAN: Mm-hmm, yeah, solar gets a big boost. The goal there is to cut the cost of solar panels by 75 percent. And biomass got a huge boost. It went from a 200 million dollar request last year to 270 million dollars in this request.
SCHOR: Absolutely. But I think for these industries funding is important but also the tax side is hugely important. And you see Congress still wavering on whether to extend some key renewables' tax credits this week on the hill. So good news, bad news, really.
GELLERMAN: Well here's Stephen Chu, he's the Secretary of the Department of Energy, unveiling his side of the budget.
CHU: Invest in clean energy, and safely harnessing our energy resources, it supports science and innovation, and it cuts costs for U.S. manufacturers through more efficient operations.
SCHOR: Yes, certainly. But also, I think, a plea from Mr. Chu to kind of make this more about where we can target dollars that work, you know. He referenced ARPA-E, which is the advanced research arm of the Energy Department. They took some fire this week for rescinding grants to recipients and Republicans have tried to sort of make it part of the Solyndra issue, but it's actually a separate part of DOE from these loans. And Mitt Romney, fun fact, would continue ARPA-E. He says "I like the framework. I like the format."
GELLERMAN: Let's move on to the Department of the Interior. That's where Secretary Salazar does his number crunching. Let's listen to him.
SALAZAR: This budget for the fiscal year 2013 is a squeeze budget. It is a squeeze budget with tough choices and with painful cuts included in this budget.
GELLERMAN: And yet President Obama's request in this squeeze actually goes up. This year he's asking for 11 and a half billion dollars. That's up slightly from 11.4 billion dollars last year.
SCHOR: True, and yet when it comes to all of these you have to look into the individual program lines and, you know, Land and Water Conservation Fund is getting less than last year's request. A number of priorities Mr. Salazar would hold dear are below last year.
GELLERMAN: The budget proposal seeks five billion dollars for America's Great Outdoor Programs, I'm reading. That's a good chunk of change for America's Great Outdoor Programs. What are those, do you know?
SCHOR: Those are just education and incentive programs for folks to take advantage of the National Parks System. But that is one of those that is just a very easy target for Republicans, who have a politically potent case to make this year that every federal dollar needs to be kind of devoted to hard and fast concerns and not to programs like that. So I think it's very unlikely that kind of increase will become law.
GELLERMAN: So the president proposes and the house and senate dispose.
SCHOR: As they say.
GELLERMAN: I found it curious that the Department of Interior actually takes in more money than it spends. It gets money from selling off licenses for mineral and oil drilling.
SCHOR: It does. That's a fact that's not often discussed, but it does drive a really serious and important debate on the hill right now because, you know, Democrats have long pushed for before we open new off-shore areas to exploration, we should start making sure that companies are actually drilling on, exploring on, and paying royalties on the plots they already own. And a Republican would say, you know, this is, frankly, a waste of private sector resources. If I own a lease on a plot that doesn't have oil, why would I even try to do anything there? So that's a hot button.
GELLERMAN: So Elana, any surprises from the president's proposed FY 2013 budget?
SCHOR: It was interesting to see the president propose using money from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay for long-term transportation and infrastructure funding. This is, you know, roads, rails, bridges, public transportation. Because the president is also making a fairly big show of backing a senate transportation bill this year that does not use this war money. So it would be the equivalent of with the left hand producing one plan and with the right hand giving a thumbs up to a very different plan. That's not to say they can't do both, but it's politically interesting.
GELLERMAN: Elana, before I let you go back to work, what about NOAA? They're the people in charge of the Weather Service. Any surprises there?
SCHOR: Well, I don't know if you'd call it a surprise, but the president did slightly cut, by I believe it was slightly less than 40 million, his request for the folks who sit and monitor extreme weather events. And the Weather Service employee union is fairly aggravated because they're seeing an uptick, we all are, frankly, in these severe weather episodes, and yet, less money to actually keep watch on them.
GELLERMAN: Elana Schor is a reporter with Greenwire, an environment and energy daily. She covers budget issues. Elana, thank you so very much.
SCHOR: Thanks for having me.
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