Even Bigger Proposed GOP Science/Environment Cuts

By Chris Mooney | February 12, 2011 9:40 am

The Appropriations committee came out yesterday with a proposal of $ 100 billion in cuts from the non-defense discretionary budget–which is itself just a fraction of total spending. There are deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, and to some of the key scientific priorities of the federal stimulus. Take the Energy Department:

The Committee also sought to reduce excess and unnecessary spending by cutting Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and Science accounts – both of which received huge funding levels in the stimulus bill. To date, EERE has more than $10 billion and Science has more than $800 million in unspent stimulus funding.

I guess the logic here is that Republicans didn’t like the stimulus, and so the unspent parts of it should be pulled back. I don’t see though how that helps the economy or our competitiveness.

In fact, there’s more that can be said about this. These renewable energy cuts are occurring while federal subsidies to fossil fuel producers–billions of dollars per year–are being preserved. In effect, then, the plan is to privilege one energy source over another.

Meanwhile, EPA gets savaged, and climate change programs defunded:

Specifically, the CR cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by $3 billion, which is 29% below fiscal year 2010. The cuts to the EPA alone represent 69% of the bill’s reduction compared to last year’s level. In addition, the bill cuts climate change funding bill-wide by $107 million, or 29%, from the fiscal year 2010 enacted level.

And so that brief bipartisan-sounding moment following the State of the Union is already officially passed, and we’re headed towards a budget showdown.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Budgets

Comments (18)

  1. Az

    “I don’t see though how that helps the economy…” Have you seen much help in the trillions already set aside? The only thing the stimulus has done was to “save” large bureaucratic organizations who are too large and unsustainable. In other words, more money down the drain. Now if there was significant amount of money actually given to new ideas and new organizations who can bring new excitement and new innovation (lots of news) to out society, I would be all for more stimulation. They gave our money to organization who are unable to manage it properly and have no reason to use the money efficiently and effectively (how many gave out bonuses after begging for money?).
    If these “science” organizations have not spent their money, maybe they did not “need” it anyway.
    What exactly is the “climate change bill”? Did it not die in July? Why fund something that does not exist?
    What was it suppose to be? Something that cuts greenhouse gases? I would love to see money thrown at positive forward moving items not items that may or may not be able to be accomplished. Lets throw money at innovative items (solar/wind) that will be its nature remove greenhouse gases. These bills that say “you must have 35mpg” or “you must cut greenhouse gases” tend to just open up room for exceptions later on in the process and accomplish virtually nothing.

  2. Pablo

    About time the government starts doing something right. “Green” tech and “climate change” are already over funded by the government- that money doesn’t yield much, if any, contributions to energy independence. No alternative source is as nearly efficient as fossil fuels (except nuclear), thus making them inefficient physically and economically. However, those oil companies don’t need subsidies either, nor do farmers for producing ethanol. Cuts need to be made across the board, including defense.

  3. Sean McCorkle

    @2
    According to this this, fossil fuels received ten times as much in subsidies as wind, solar, geothermal, and bio-fuels, yet you start off your hit list with the latter, not the former. Its easy to pick on the small guys, I guess.

    How do you define efficiency?

  4. Nullius in Verba

    #3,

    From your link:
    “According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), federal subsidies for conventional coal generated electricity production in 2007 equaled $0.44/MWh (megawatt-hour). The equivalent figure for wind was $23.37 and for solar, $24.34 per MWh.”

    The article argues back. They say the subsidies for renewables are new (which is irrelevant) and uncertain (relevant, but due no doubt to questions about its value-for-money) and they point to subsidies paid to coal for development of the unproven “clean coal” carbon sequestration technology, which I agree is excessive and a waste of money and ought to be stopped.

    I am also against subsidies and selective taxes in general, and no supporter of even $0.44/MWh for coal, so I’m not defending that either. But that’s a general point about all subsidies and regulatory manipulation – not just in the energy industry.

  5. Sean McCorkle

    @4

    Well spotted. Both those numbers match table 35 here (p106) – in which only solar and refined coal have higher ratios. Assuming an average consumer electricity cost of $200/MWh (from eyeballing 20c/kWh here, that number is somewhat high, although from the perspective of variation in electricity rates over the US, if that extra 10% were passed on to the consumer, its not that large.

    As the article mentions right below that, these are relatively recent subsidies for systems which we are still trying to get going, whereas fossil fuel industries have had some sort of subsidies since the 20s or 30s. If we are seeing something which is an initial high to get the ball rolling, and then starts dropping sufficiently as production increases, then its not such a concern. But if it is something the industry perpetually requires, we need to reexamine the issue. Looking at the previous table (34) on the previous page in that same EIA report, it seems the two biggest subgroups are tax breaks and federal electrical support, with R&D in third place. Given that all those provide %10 boost/MWh— yeah—I think its fair to reexamine those amounts and ask if we want to start weaning the industry off the federal help. Maybe we want to give it a few more years to catch up to the other energy forms first, some of which have had federal assistance for many more first.
    The other issue is that these are most-likely dominated by one-time expenses involved in the initial construction of each turbine, not operating costs.

    But that’s a general point about all subsidies and regulatory manipulation

    Do you count things like anti-trust laws and laws prohibiting sales of dangerous substances regulatory? Or food and drug safety regulations? The reality is that we have long put some controls on aspects of market economics when it got out of control. Federal bank guarantees, Securities and Exchange regulations etc. The market is something that should serve us, not the other way around. It has no more “wisdom” than does a minimization algorithm or a search engine, both which usually work really well these days, but can still go off the deep end occasionally. Furthermore, participants in the market are trying to manipulate it just by the act of playing in it, some more so than others. Why shouldn’t the public, through a democratic government, also have a say in it?

    Are government subsidies abused? Yes. Often. Are regulations onerous and contradictory? Yes. Often. Both often lead to unintended or counter-productive results. But that doesn’t mean we should do away with them entirely—rather we need to be smarter about how we use them, monitor the results carefully, and be flexible in response to those result, fixing things when they’re broken. Automobiles kill or have killed between 30,000 and 50,000 people per year in the US and injure millions more per year. They are clearly dangerous. Does that mean we should completely ban them? How many people are killed or injured by kitchen knives, intentionally or otherwise? Does it mean we should ban them? No – these are tools which can be dangerous, but we’re better off with them. We need to be vigilant about using them safely.

    Market regulating tools are likewise double-edged swords. I’m very distrustful of blanket philosophical objections to them in absolute terms. Pragmatic rules of thumb, such as “the less used the better”, or “use with a light touch”, honed by experience, and qualified by something like “except in dire circumstances”, are much more wise. (An example of “dire circumstance” might be the discovery a big comet headed for a collision with Earth – at which point, all resources at our disposal should be commandeered towards stopping it, market principles taking a back seat.)

    That being said, yeah, I would be willing to go along with some lessening of renewables subsidies, given budget stress, provided it was done after careful examination and discussion of all the points. But I would also want to see the same scrutiny applied to other energy sources, which maybe yield more joules per dollar assistance, but still take the lion’s share of the taxpayers money.

  6. Nullius in Verba

    #5,

    Remarkable! I think I agree with all of that!

    “Do you count things like anti-trust laws and laws prohibiting sales of dangerous substances regulatory? Or food and drug safety regulations?”

    I think that those laws are over-used and sometimes abused, but at the same time, I’m not an absolute purist about such things. Sometimes one has to compromise between a choice of evils, although less often than others claim. There is a danger that once compromise to prevent a greater evil is allowed, it becomes an excuse for a minority who happen to be in power to define their own beliefs and preferences in terms of ‘greater evils’, and legislate to enforce their own prejudices. We have to beware of not only the market getting out of control, but also the regulators – and historically (at least in fairly recent history) I’d say the latter have usually been the bigger problem. I am particularly wary of people being regulated “for their own good”.

    As for the comet, I think that if you make a strong enough case that the comet really is coming, there will be plenty of demand for a solution and the market won’t need ‘comandeering’. The market will be better at finding solutions than any centralised command. That said, it would face the already well-known problem of being a public good, and so you might find that government was the fastest way to fund it once you had the popular support. (Although many, I’m sure, would donate their efforts if they thought they could help.) But there is a bigger danger that any old government could come along, tell everybody there was a comet coming, (but refuse to let anyone else look through their telescope to see it themselves), and declare the need to suspend democracy. Even in the case of the cometary emergency, perhaps especially in such a case, there must still be checks and balances.

  7. Gaythia

    Since Chris is here, out west, at the moment; maybe we should contemplate the difference in historical trajectory that might have happened if the government had not gotten involved in a transportation transformation in the 1850′s, and had not heavily subsidized the building of the transcontinental railroads by giving the railroads huge tracts of land.

    After all, if anyone really wanted to get out here, they could always buy themselves a horse, or a covered wagon and team of oxen and bring the whole family.

    It could have been a moot point, since if the short sighted tightwads were running the country from the get go, among other things, Thomas Jefferson would not have been able to do the Louisiana Purchase. Then, northern Colorado would still be part of France and southern Colorado would still be part of Mexico.

  8. Pablo

    @3: Physically, fossil fuels are more efficient than any other known fuel source on the planet (except nuclear) – highest work output for the input. No alternative “green” sources can compete. I share my sentiments with Nullis in #4.

  9. Sean McCorkle

    #8

    I’m just having a hard time buying that. Every gallon of oil needs to be dug, pumped up and shipped all over the place. Same for coal. And to add to #7′s excellent point, coal (probably oil) make HEAVY use of that trans-continental rail system.

    In contrast, once a windmill is constructed and power lines connected, the only operating costs are maintenance. Those same costs exist for all other sources. However, wind turbines don’t require any fuel to be transported to them; the wind comes to them on its own.

  10. Pablo

    The railroad being subsidized has nothing to do with alternative energy. The growth of the railroad, cars, building, and population were all due to fossil fuels. They revolutionized the US and the rest of the world and railroads originally ran on coal. If they wanted to go “green” back then they should have stuck to the covered wagons and oxen… a far less efficient source of energy.

    As for the energy itself, it’s pure physics, alternative sources can’t nearly produce the same output as fossil fuels – there’s no disputing that. If alternative energy sources were more efficient we’d be reliant on them already because fossil fuels would be deemed obsolete. If the entire country was composed of solar, wind, and geothermal, it would not be enough to meet our energy needs and that’s why we still use fossil fuels. Alternative sources only supplement a fraction of our energy use because that’s all they’re capable of doing as populations/economies continue to grow. Nuclear, although initially very costly, is the best solution to yielding cleaner energy, at least for power plants. However, our government won’t subsidize nuclear due to political nonsense of those on the left – and those on the right are all anti-science right?

  11. Matt B.

    What does “CR” stand for in “Specifically, the CR cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by $3 billion…”?

  12. Nullius in Verba

    #10,

    “If the entire country was composed of solar, wind, and geothermal, it would not be enough to meet our energy needs and that’s why we still use fossil fuels.”

    Actually, that’s not true. I posted this on a previous thread, but it’s relevant here too. The interesting bit starts around 30-35 minutes in.
    http://www.grist.org/article/2011-02-11-gobsmackingly-gargantuan-challenge-of-shifting-to-clean-energy

    The biggest source of energy we’ve got is solar – the problem is that it is very diffuse, so you need a massive amount of infrastructure to collect it. By contrast, fossil fuels have a very much more compact footprint.

    Think about it. Suppose you were able to build five hundred thousand square kilometres of solar cells (a square 700 km on a side – enough to power the world), what would it take to wire it up? Each square metre needs several metres of wire, and there are five hundred billion square metres in your array, so you need several billions of kilometres of wire and connectors. It has to be quite thick wire to keep the resistance losses down. And the wires are the easy bit!

    It’s perfectly feasible, in the engineering sense. The scale of world-wide manufacturing capability today is so fantastic, that this is actually possible. But it would be very expensive – an effort comparable in scale to World War II extended globally, and we know what just five years of that did to the world economy for decades afterwards.

    At the rate things are going, something like it ought to be economically feasible starting in around 2050. (With all the usual caveats about predicting the future of technological innovation by extrapolating today’s trends – I’m still waiting for my flying car!) It isn’t a realistic or sensible proposal at the moment. But we should always remember that “business as usual” doesn’t mean we will forever continue doing things like we do them today.

  13. Pablo

    I understand solar power is feasible, but it’s not economical or practical due to price of solar panels, maintenance of those panels, and land needed to establish a solar farm. I just stumbled over this news as well:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/10/holland_energy_switch/

    Also interesting, an opinionated piece backed by numbers:

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0JZS/is_19_23/ai_n25012397/?tag=content;col1

    At this time, I’m very pessimistic about wind and solar as viable alternatives to fossil fuels. I see natural gas as the only viable and economical substitute for oil because we currently sit upon about 150 years worth of it and have means to recover it with hydro-fracturing, all while keeping the price lower than the current price of oil. Nuclear would be the best long term solution, but the initial costs and political views of those on the left are holding up significant process.

  14. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius and Pablo:

    1) No, transmission line costs are not by any means the limiting factor. This LBL report examined transmission line expansion costs in 40 wind power projects in the US. From the summary on page xi:

    The median cost of transmission from all scenarios in our sample is $300/kW, roughly 15% of the cost of building a wind project.

    (thats per kW of generating capacity, if I understand it correctly).

    Similar numbers are borne out in table 1 in this EIA report which has estimates of per-megawatt capacity costs (unsubsidized) broken into capital, operating, fuel, transmission etc. Transmission lines are a small part of the cost for any of the energy sources.

    2) And no, wind is not uneconomical either. By those EIA estimates, wind isn’t the cheapest of all, but its pretty damn good. Also note that variable operating costs are markedly higher for than for the renewables except for biofuels. That includes fuel costs. If those spike due to increased demand pressure, their costs will go up. Not so for wind. And fixed operating costs for wind are not that far out of line from the fossil fuels.

    But it would be very expensive – an effort comparable in scale to World War II extended globally, and we know what just five years of that did to the world economy for decades afterwards.

    Um- the US absolutely thrived in the decades after WWII, having not suffered many direct attacks. I would hope that a widespread reengineering of the energy infrastructure won’t wreak the utter destruction like what occurred in Europe, Asia and parts of the Pacific.

  15. Sean McCorkle

    apologies – that should have read

    Also note that variable operating costs are markedly higher for fossil fuels than for renewables except for biofuels.

  16. Pablo

    You’re still missing the major point that wind is also unreliable and relies on generators, powered by fossil fuels, in the event the wind isn’t strong enough to run the turbines. Those turbines also require an awful lot of land and make a great deal of droning noise, so people would not want to live close to a wind farm, thus leaving a vacant radius. Then there’s the “not in my backyard” argument because many feel a wind farm would be unsightly – like those who protested a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts.

    Furthermore, costs for wind will go up if demand for wind energy were to rise, such as in the event fossil fuels become scarce or OPEC decides to cut off the world. Costs would only go down on wind when there’s enough reliable wind energy to supply the majority of the country without running at maximum possible production – which is pretty much physically impossible considering the variables (volatility, energy output, required land, and available favorable geography). It’s physically only feasible for a fraction of the country as a supplement to fossil fuels.

  17. Sean McCorkle

    You’re still missing the major point that wind is also unreliable and relies on generators, powered by fossil fuels, in the event the wind isn’t strong enough to run the turbines

    Good point although it need not be fossil fuels taking up the slack for wind in the future. Also, I think you’re underestimating the potential contribution wind could eventually make. For example, there might be viable energy storage solutions, or a smart grid might alleviate some if not all of the production/load imbalance problem. But these are all good points; wind has drawbacks, and I would see it as part of a set of solutions, and by the way I wouldn’t rule out nuclear power as one of them. I was mostly make a point about the economics not being bad f0r wind.

    Any solution has pros and cons. For example, there are issues of long term disposal of nuclear waste (not necessarily insurmountable, but its a serious question). Photovoltaics are still pretty costly and take up land. Biofuels have whole laundry lists of concerns (displacement of food crops, water usage, etc).

    I view the potential scarcity and unforseen shortages of fossil fuels in the future as a major reason to invest in alternatives ahead of time to hedge our position for that contingency.

  18. Pablo

    “I view the potential scarcity and unforseen shortages of fossil fuels in the future as a major reason to invest in alternatives ahead of time to hedge our position for that contingency.”

    Absolutely, I agree. Not only due to the possible shortage of fossil fuels, but for energy independence as well.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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