Bush Budget Gives Conservation Short Shrift

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - The budget released Monday by the Bush administration - the nation's first deficit budget in four years - is meeting criticism from all corners, particularly from the environmental community. At a press conference this morning, representatives from several conservation groups denounced the financial "shell game" employed by the administration to fund its priorities.

President George W. Bush has proposed a $2.13 trillion budget for fiscal year 2003, a spending plan which will create a $80 billion deficit. The plan cuts spending for six of 14 cabinet departments, and slashes several programs entirely, but dramatically increases spending for military and homeland defense programs.

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President George W. Bush tells troops at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida that he is seeking a $48 billion increase in defense spending (White House photo by Paul Morse)
Conservation groups say one of the major victims of the president's spending priorities will be the environment.

"We believe that you shouldn't have to threaten the homeland in order to save the homeland," said Wesley Warren, senior fellow for environmental economics at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Warren, the former associate director for natural resources, energy and science at the Office of Management and Budget for the Clinton Administration, led a briefing today on the implications of the Bush budget for key environmental agencies and programs. He noted that while overall, spending for major environmental agencies is cut by just $1 billion, down to $28 billion for 2003, a closer look reveals that the cuts decimate conservation programs, while favoring corporate and industrial interests.

"When you go through the details," Warren noted, "there's a series of special handouts to special interests."

ENERGY INDUSTRY GETS A BOOST

Noting that some of Bush's funding priorities, particularly those in the Department of Energy and certain Interior Department agencies, resemble the priorities outlined in the Bush administration's national energy plan, Warren said it "wouldn't surprise me" if the documents were influenced "by same special interests."

"The budget provides an all you can eat buffet for Big Energy, and crumbs for energy efficiency," Warren noted. "It would enrich the administration's energy industry friends, foul our air and water, and do nothing to promote true energy independence."

Erich Pica, director of the Green Scissors Campaign at Friends of the Earth, called the budget a "mixed bag for the environment," noting that renewable energy efficiency programs are relatively unscathed in the president's proposal.

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The budget includes funding for biomass projects, like the McNeil Generating Station, which turns wood waste into power (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
The Bush plan includes a $51 million reduction in spending for federal energy efficiency programs, increases state energy efficiency programs by $41 million. Renewable energy initiatives would get a $21 million boost under the president's budget, and the plan extends tax credits for residential solar energy projects, as wind and biomass power.

"Converting biomass into a gas will be key to our electric generating future," said Katherine Hamilton, co-director of the American Bioenergy Association. "We can use our sawdust, tree trimmings, yard waste, and crop residues to generate electricity with a cleaner technology than conventional fossil fuels."

However, about 50 percent of the Bush budget's funding for renewable programs would go toward hydropower projects and hydrogen energy. Solar energy programs would be cut by two percent, and geothermal programs by three percent.

The budget would boost the Weatherization Assistance Program, which saves money and energy by weatherizing low income homes, by 20 percent.

The Bush administration proposes to nearly double funding for the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, to which Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has given his full support.

The plan would increase funding for nuclear power research and development by 35 percent, to $71.5 million. The money largely funds the president's new Nuclear Power 2010 program, which aims to speed up development of new nuclear power plants, bringing more plants online by the end of the decade.

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President Bush wants to devote millions to research into cleaner ways of burning coal. The Rosebud clean coal demonstration plant near Colstrip, Montana, was built by the Department of Energy (Photo courtesy DOE)
The nuclear industry would also benefit from a $2.1 billion tax credit for power plant decommissioning, and the coal industry would get a $325 million handout through the president's Coal Research Initiative, which funds research into clean coal technologies and other programs.

"These are all failed programs of the past," charged Pica, "and yet, the administration thinks that by spending more money, we can make coal cleaner."

Several groups warned that the programs that the Bush budget fails to detail are at least as important as what is included. For example, Congress is now reviewing energy legislation that would provide almost $35 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear power companies - over and above those included in the Bush budget.

FUNDING CUTS FOR CLEAN AIR, WATER

The president's 2003 budget would slash funding for clean water protection programs and shift environmental law enforcement responsibilities from the federal government to the states. Such an effort threatens effective and uniform enforcement of national environmental laws, argues Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice.

"Cutting clean water funding and shifting more enforcement responsibilities to the states were among the most controversial aspects of President Bush's environmental budget last year, and they were rebuked by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress," said Mulhern. "Frankly, I am surprised that the administration would resurrect these unwise shifts in priorities when they were so soundly rejected by Congress during the last session."

President Bush requested $7.7 billion for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less than the $8 billion enacted by Congress in 2002 for the environmental agency, but more than the administration's 2002 request of $7.3 billion. Almost half the agency's budget - $3.5 billion - would go toward grants for states, tribes and other non-federal partners.

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EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said $124 million of the agency's budget will go toward homeland security needs (Photo courtesy EPA)
"The President and I both believe that not all wisdom resides in Washington DC, and that lots of innovative, creative, and effective environmental progress is being made by state, county and local governments," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

Under the EPA's proposed 2003 budget, water programs would receive about $3.2 billion, compared to the $3.7 billion level funded by Congress for 2002.

For example, the budget calls for $850 million for state loans that help provide safe drinking water, $150 million less than Congress authorized. The EPA has said that the nation needs to invest $102.5 billion to "ensure the continued provision of safe drinking water."

"Protection of clean water consistently ranks among Americans' top concern for their families' health as well as for the well being of the natural environment," said Mulhern. "The Bush administration's proposed cuts that would reduce money available for treatment of wastewater discharges and other water pollution at a time when the need for safe water funding is growing is a big step in the wrong direction."

The Bush budget cuts the EPA's science and technology research for clean air by $47 million and its core operating budget for clean air by $104 million.

The EPA's budget proposal also includes $15 million for an enforcement grant program for the states. Last year, Congress rejected shifting $25 million from federal enforcement efforts to create a similar, unauthorized enforcement grant program for states.

Mulhern called the efforts "a dangerous trend that threatens clean air, clean water and our communities."

The NRDC's Warren noted that shifting enforcement funds allows the Bush administration to leave important clean air and water laws on the books, while hamstringing the EPA's ability to enforce them.

"The proposition that states do as good of a job at enforcing national environmental laws as the EPA is questionable at best," explained Mulhern. "There are no performance measures for states to be held accountable for enforcement under this proposed new program."

CONSERVATION VS. EXPLOITATION

While the Department of Interior's funding remains stable under the Bush budget, funding shifts within that budget demonstrate a "systematic effort to undermine conservation," said Sue Gunn, director of budget and appropriations at the Wilderness Society.

For example, while the Bureau of Land Management's budget for land use planning would increase by $14 million, most of those funds would be dedicated to lands that the Bush administration is eyeing for new energy exploration - oil, natural gas and coal. The planning dollars would fund the first steps toward more drilling and mining, rather than promoting protections for rare habitats and species, Gunn warned.

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The Bureau of Land Management will receive just a fraction of funding it needs to manage several new national monuments, including Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona (Photo courtesy BLM)
Meanwhile, the BLM's budget for natural resource operations would decrease by $9 million. The agency would get just $2 million to manage the new national monuments bequeathed to it by the previous administration - about a tenth of what the agency has said it needs.

The Bush budget also presumes income of $2.4 billion from energy leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a proposal rejected by Congress last year.

At the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service, the budget increases the amount of timber that would be offered for sale from public lands, from 1.4 billion board feet to an even two billion board feet. The federal timber program has consistently lost money while decimating wildlife habitat, critics charge.

USDA programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and Farmland Protection Program would receive no funding under Bush's budget. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's budget for studying and listing threatened and endangered species is $15 million less than what the agency had requested.

Among the new programs funded by the Bush budget is the Interior Department's $100 million Cooperative Conservation Initiative (CCI), which would encourage private landowners to implement conservation projects with public land managers and local communities.

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The 2003 budget zeroes out funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program, which aids farmers who protect and preserve agricultural wetlands (Photo by Ron Nichols, courtesy USDA)
Half of the program's budget would be distributed to states to fund cost share grants for innovative conservation projects. The other $50 million would be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service to fund cost share grants.

Gunn warned that those funds come from some of the Interior Department's core programs, stripping the agency of money needed for other conservation efforts.

"To take money out of existing core accounts, to transfer them into thin air and hope that someone will take care of these problems is whimsical at best," Gunn said.

BROKEN PROMISES

On Monday, President Bush took credit for fulfilling two of his campaign promises - full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which gets money from offshore oil and gas leases, and money to eliminate the National Park Service's maintenance backlog. Both of those claims were challenged today by conservation groups.

The Bush budget claims to provide $900 million for the LWCF, which provides funds for state conservation efforts and other environmental programs. In reality, environmental groups say, only about $486 million would go toward authorized LWCF projects such as land acquisition and open space preservation.

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Offshore oil and natural gas leases help fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (Photo by Robert Pryce, courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The remainder of the $900 million described by the President comes from renaming existing programs funded under other agencies. Five accounts were moved from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the LWCF, along with one from the U.S. Forest Service, to flesh out the president's pet program.

"This is classic - shall I say it? - Enron type accounting," said The Wilderness Society's Gunn, referring to the doctored books which led energy giant Enron's investors to believe that the company was profitable, right up until Enron declared bankruptcy last month.

President Bush also promised to eliminate the Park Service's $4.9 billion maintenance and construction backlog in five years, but has so far proposed "trivial" increases in funding, said the NRDC's Warren. The 2003 budget provides $660 million toward the backlog - almost the same as last year's funding.

The tropical forest conservation program at the Treasury Department, which Bush pledged to fund at $100 million a year, would get no new funding under the 2003 budget, though $40 million would be siphoned out of other programs to meet some of the program's needs.

Other international conservation efforts, such as the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, also receive zero funding under the Bush budget.

DEFICIT BUDGET

Despite all the cuts, the budget would still lead the nation into a "new era of budget deficits," charges Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a national budget watchdog organization.

"It is troubling that the President would release a budget that substantially increases federal spending and results in budget deficits for as long as the eye can see," said Joe Theissen, executive director at TCS.

"Too many of the proposed cuts in the President's budget are politically unpopular and have little chance of getting enacted by Congress during an election year," explained Theissen. Therefore, the deficit next year is likely to be even larger than what the Bush administration now projects - $80 billion in 2003 - leaving even less money for conservation in the future.