You are here

Los Angeles Times: Priority changes on green policies; Democrats in Congress turn to lower-profile projects to combat global warming and aim to boost funding 33%.

By Richard Simon

Washington -- Reflecting a shift in priorities under the Democratic majority, Congress is moving to spend as much as $6.7 billion next fiscal year to combat global warming, an increase of nearly one-third from the current year.

House appropriations bills call for about $2 billion in new spending on initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil dependency, significantly expanding the budgets for numerous federal research initiatives and launching some new ones.

While legislation to raise vehicle miles-per-gallon standards and cap emissions from power plants has been slower moving -- because of resistance from some lawmakers -- Democrats have turned to the budget to advance their environmental priorities by increasing spending on a variety of lower-profile programs.

That is likely to set up a showdown this fall between Congress and President Bush, who wants to spend less on climate-change initiatives. The White House budget office, which has criticized excessive spending in the overall appropriations bills, noted that the president's proposed budget provides for a 3% increase in spending for climate-change activities.

'Congress is putting its money where its mouth is,' said Lowell Ungar, senior policy analyst at the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington coalition of business, consumer, environmental and government leaders. 'They are devoting real resources to trying to address the problem of climate change.'

Lawmakers from both parties also see the public's heightened interest in climate change and energy security as an opportunity to steer federal money to their states through earmarks billed as environmentally friendly.

Money has been set aside for scores of home-state research initiatives and construction projects, including $1 million for a plug-in hybrid vehicle demonstration project at Southern California's South Coast Air Quality Management District.

'Green is becoming very fashionable,' said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), a senior appropriator who secured $500,000 for a geothermal demonstration project. 'I think members are going to be challenged in their district' about how they are responding to concerns about climate change and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, he said.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), for example, got $500,000 for a fuel-cell project by Superprotonic, a Pasadena company started by Caltech scientists. 'America needs to wean itself off of foreign oil,' Schiff said in a statement. 'This is as much a national security imperative as it is an environmental one. And federal support for innovative new technologies is part of the answer.'

Early this year, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee asked scientists how government efforts could be cranked up to combat global warming and reduce oil use. 'The question then became: How do we get the biggest bang for our buck?' said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) 'We've only accomplished a small first step, but it is a step in the right direction.'

Environmental initiatives are scattered throughout the 12 House appropriations bills for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Kei Koizumi, research and development policy program director of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, said money for addressing climate change had been added 'even in areas where you might not expect to find it.'

The bill funding foreign-aid programs calls on the U.S. Export-Import Bank to increase investment in renewable energy projects -- a provision that its sponsors, Schiff and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), say could lead to about $1 billion in additional green exports in 2008.

The bill funding the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires it to incorporate 'robust green building' standards.

And the bill funding Congress provides $3.9 million to the Green the Capitol initiative that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is pushing to make the House carbon neutral by the end of next year.

Some of the largest increases are in the bill that funds the Department of Energy.

The House provided about $1.9 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, about 52% more than the administration requested. Just two years ago under the Republican-controlled Congress, the programs received about $1.2 billion.

The Senate has yet to complete its spending bills, but its appropriations committee has recommended about $1.7 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

The House energy appropriations bill also provides $44 million to promote geothermal energy, a ninefold increase compared with current spending. The Bush administration, on the other hand, has proposed doing away with spending on the geothermal energy program, contending that it is a mature industry.

Environmentalists welcome the increased spending but say more pollution regulation is crucial. 'Those spending measures are no substitute for better fuel-economy standards and tough caps on greenhouse gas emissions,' said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.

The Senate has approved a bill calling for the first significant increase in vehicle fuel-economy standards in years, and the House has approved a bill establishing the first nationwide requirement for utilities to generate more electricity from cleaner energy sources, such as the sun and wind. When Congress returns from its August recess, House-Senate negotiators will try to work out differences between the two energy bills.

This fall, Congress is also expected to consider legislation that would cap emissions from power plants and other sources.

In addition to the appropriations bills, the House and Senate energy bills would authorize billions of dollars in additional spending. Among the measures: establishing a program to train workers for 'green-collar jobs,' such as solar-panel installers, and creating a $1-billion foreign aid program to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The House energy bill also includes tax credits that would help state and local governments finance $6 billion in bonds for green projects. Of that, California

could get $720 million.

Republicans have derided the bond program as 'green pork.' Some of the other initiatives, including a new Office on Global Climate Change within the State Department, also have drawn scorn.

Rep. Donald Manzullo of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that deals with the global environment, said that the House energy bill 'grows the size and scope of the federal government' and 'ignores all that our government is doing in the area of climate change.'

Some of the new projects are the result of unusual alliances between lawmakers looking out for home-state interests and those seeking to reduce pollution. Coal-country lawmakers have been among the strongest supporters of increased funding for projects to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, seeing it as a way to preserve the coal industry.

Increased concern about global warming also has given rise to a fresh approach to landing federal funds for home-state projects -- green earmarks.

Businesses have also reacted. 'Lobbyists are crawling out of the woodwork to say their idea is good for global warming,' said Clean Air Watch's O'Donnell.

Critics of earmarks say some of these projects may be worthy, including new energy research initiatives, but others are merely classic pork-barrel spending, particularly construction projects that have been touted to Congress as green.

'For many lawmakers, global warming is more than just an issue. It's an opportunity to send more tax dollars to their pet parochial projects,' said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

Citizens Against Government Waste singled out for particular criticism the $150,000 secured by Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) to buy a solar-powered house for the Troy Chamber of Commerce. Knollenberg spokesman Trent Wisecup said the house, being built by students from LawrenceTechnologicalUniversity, would be put on display to show ways to reduce carbon emissions.

'I don't think it's pork,' Wisecup said.

'I think it's actually a great example of how a local university is working with engineering kids to do something that shows how they can protect the environment.'