The Donald and his Congressional budget hawks are looking pretty profligate at the moment—having just added $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years for tax reforms, $300 billion for fiscal years 2018/2019 by the budget deal and a possible $25 billion more to build a Wall. Spending pressures on one side will be met with saving pressures on another.
Never keen on clean energy and the environment, to begin with, the Administration is likely to become more adamant in their attempts to keep a lid on federal climate-related programs. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is facing a proposed funding cut of over 70 percent from the current $2.04 billion to $575.5 million.
EERE is joined on the Administration’s hit parade of climate-related programs by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) [i] and Weatherization Assistance (WAP)[ii]. Total funding for the two is in an at-risk neighborhood of $3.6 billion.
Other proposed Administration eliminations are the State Department’s Global Climate Change Initiative at $1.3 billion and the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture. The $498 million Ag program helps rural households and businesses obtain reliable drinking water, as well as improve waste and stormwater systems.[iii]
As a science-adverse troop of Trumpsters, the Administration is naturally looking to flush a substantial number of science and technology programs, many of which are climate-related. The President’s proposed research and development budget for fiscal 2019 is roughly $118.1 billion. Slightly below the current total of $119 billion, civilian agencies bear the brunt of Trump’s bias with an overall reduction of 19.2 percent. The split between defense and civilian programs is clearly reflected in the President’s willingness to increase the budget for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by $281 million while zeroing out DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E is a highly successful program modeled on DARPA but focused on clean energy alternatives and environmental sustainability.
The truth be told, Trump’s proposed slash and burn budget will never be accepted, even by the current Congress. Presidential budget proposals are never more than suggestions setting a tone and a starting point for negotiation. Similar White House efforts in 2017 were rebuffed by Congress. The same is likely to hold true for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
There are certain realities attached to any attempt to blow federal research and development budgets to smithereens.
The first of these is the tens of thousands of national energy and university laboratory jobs at stake—particularly in states like Tennessee, Illinois, New York, Colorado, and Idaho in an election year. The Idaho National Laboratory, for example, is the state’s fifth largest employer. Lost jobs are lost votes.
Second is the credence given to climate science and warming’s impact on national defense and security. Despite the Administration’s having wholly omitted mention of climate change in its National Security Strategy and its lone mention in the President’s FY 2018 budget document, there are two who recognize the import of the problem.
Defense Secretary Mattis and National Intelligence Director Coates are convinced climate change is real and must be accounted for in their operating plans. Trump’s more or less willingness to “listen to his generals” allows them to do so without much White House interference—assuming they’re not brazen about it.
Third is the reality—albeit a more problematic one—attached to ending LIHEAP, Weatherization, and other low-income programs. At-risk urban communities don’t vote Republican—at least enough to have much sway with conservatives. Rural white communities tend to vote Republican, but the absolute numbers are small. I am not trying to be rude—just realistic.
Notwithstanding Trump’s claiming concern for the poorest among us, neither he nor many in his party has shown much willingness to dispense environmental justice to low-income and at-risk communities—whatever their racial or demographic makeup. Still, this is an election year, and appearances are important.
Where is the money?
Pressures to offset the recent deficit additions increase the need to seek alternative sources of capital to support federal climate policies and programs. The February budget deal allows Congress and the White House to smash through mandated limits on military and civilian spending for the next 2 years. The pact will allow lawmakers to spend about $150 billion more than the caps allowed in the 2019 fiscal year that begins 1 October. (It also allows roughly $150 billion in additional spending for the 2018 fiscal year that began in October 2017, an exercise Congress has yet to complete.)
The budget deal is a windfall good only for the next two years. In 2020, the budget caps are back on. Now is the time to begin looking for cash sources outside the appropriations process. The two most immediate avenues available are judicial settlements and internal agency/department savings.
Corporations in violation of federal environmental regulations are subject to legal action by EPA and/or the Department of Justice. The settlements in these cases generate two types of capital. In some instances, the offending party is ordered to pay a fine. The collected funds are available for general revenue purposes, e.g., to pay down the deficit or to support a program.
The second category involves EPA’s ordering a polluter to bring a facility into compliance. This type of action is termed injunctive relief. These funds remain with the violator to cover the cost of compliance.
The most recent EPA enforcement report listed a total of $1.6 billion in collected penalties in FY 2017 [iv]. The same report revealed EPA’s having ordered repairs in the amount of $20 billion.
Given this is the Trump administration we’re talking about, it is not an entirely good news story. Compared to the Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama administrations, these are declining numbers. The $1.6 billion in collected fines were one-fifth of those captured in the last year of the Obama administration. A portion of those funds was the result of actions started in the Obama administration.
The $20 billion injunctive relief monies included $15.9 billion from the recent landmark Volkswagen settlements. These cases stem from the company having cheated on federal emissions tests. Backing the settlement funds out leaves the 2017 payments at $4 billion, a third of the 2016 level and less than half of 2015’s.
Environmental penalty cases are themselves something of a windfall for the federal government; they should not be considered as a steady or predictable revenue source. The who, what and where of these cases are all discretionary and depend upon the number of violations in a given year and the government’s willingness to prosecute them.
The New York Times (NYT) built a database of total civil cases filed at similar times during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. The results are shown in the Graph 1 below. Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA started 1,900 cases as compared to the 2,600 by Christine Todd Whitman and the 2,900 by Lisa Jackson. Although not certain, it is fair to assume that the significantly lower number of enforcement actions by the Trump will result in fewer collected fines and directed improvements.
Pruitt and Attorney General Sessions are showing themselves less willing to prosecute corporate violators than their predecessors. Combined with Trump’s orders to reduce regulations, recovered dollar amounts will continue to decrease over the remainder of The Donald’s time in office—unless Congress acts.
A 2017 decision by Attorney General Sessions is limiting the benefits of the environmental lawsuits filed. Over the past half-century—under both Republican and Democratic administrations—prosecutors have negotiated settlement agreements that frequently included a defendant’s paying for an environmentally beneficial project or activity not part of the civil or criminal penalty [v].
For example, a facility exceeds the pollution requirements of its permits harming a nearby waterway. It is impossible, however, to quantify the exact damage done. Recognizing that some compensation is due, the parties approximate the cash amount of the harm, and the violator agrees to pay for a project of the same approximate value, e.g., restoration of a wetland or efficiency retrofits.
The recently settled USA v Volkswagen case, involving fraudulently low-emission claims established a $2.7 billion public trust fund. The monies are being made available to the states and federally-recognized Native American nations and territories to implement approved air pollution mitigation initiatives.
These types of projects are commonly managed by third-party not-for-profit organizations, e.g., local foundations and action agencies. Such organizations will have strong connections to the communities they serve and are often able to leverage project funds with local cash and in-kind resources.
Sessions’ prohibition precludes public purpose settlements in the future. Under Sessions memo, any recovered funds not used to compensate victims will presumably be returned to the U.S. Treasury. Whatever the amount, these funds should be tracked, and efforts made to direct them towards clean energy and climate programs.
There are savings to be found in existing agency and department budgets as well. It is no secret that many in the Trump administration are extravagant in their travel arrangements. In some cases, these expenses are legal while in others not. In less than eight months’ time, Tom Price resigned as the health and human services secretary after racking up $400,000 in travel bills for chartered domestic flights and more than $500,000 for his use of military aircraft for international travel.
Other big Administration spenders include Interior Secretary Zinke, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and EPA Administrator Pruitt. Legal or not their numbers represent expenditures much in excess of the norm in previous administrations.
Pruitt has been the subject of much attention lately and not just for his travel expenses. He has an unprecedented 24/7 protection detail for himself and his family. Fearful that someone might listen in on his phone calls, he spent $25,000 for construction of a secure phone booth.
Presumably, for security reasons, Pruitt travels first-class on most occasions. Flying with him, in coach, is his staff and security detail. Pruitt has spoken publicly that the reason for both his security detail and first-class travel were “some” incidents." The head of his security detail recounted one such occasion when an individual approached him yelling “Scott Pruitt, you’re f…ing up the environment.” There have been no other such experiences cited.
A recent Vanity Fair article stated:
The many pricey flights in question have included frequent weekend trips home to Oklahoma, as well as Pruitt’s June trip to Italy for meetings at the Vatican, which set taxpayers back more than $7,000 for a round-trip business-class ticket. The entire trip, including a ride on a military aircraft that whisked Pruitt from Cincinnati to his departing flight to Rome, cost more than $43,000.
The numbers for all of these add up quickly. Kevin Bogardus, a reporter for E&E News, has done some outstanding investigative work on the costs of these extras. Bogardus estimates overall, EPA spent $832,735.40 on Pruitt's protection detail for about his first quarter running the agency — nearly double what was spent on security for Jackson and McCarthy. (emphasis added) (see Graph 2)
Multiplying the first quarter security and travel costs by four gets to a total of $3.3 million on a yearly basis. A number, I believe is low as Pruitt’s most pricey trips to Rome, Morocco, Germany and elsewhere overseas are not reflected in the first quarter totals.
The monetary impact doesn’t stop there, however. It ties back into the question of enforcement of federal environmental regulations. According to a former EPA:
When you go to 24/7 [ for security], you don't have the agents in Washington to do that. So, then you…pull agents from the 10 regions around the country to backfill…agents now called in to help with the security detail will be taken away from casework on environmental crimes. (emphasis added)
It is hard not to ask: would the agents having to “babysit” the Administrator be better-utilized tracking, investigating, and prosecuting civil and criminal violations of environmental regulations, cases that would contribute to a cleaner environment?
The cost of keeping Pruitt in an imperial style has been questioned by Republicans as well as Democrats. Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), a Trump supporter, told CBS that he thought as a general rule you ought to fly coach unless you are the president and the VP or paying for it yourself.
Pruitt has commented that ours is a toxic political environment. I can’t say I disagree with him on that point. Neither can I say that I agree with the Administrator’s unfounded denial of the causes and consequences of climate change nor his promoting fossil fuel interests as if his political future depended on it.
Pruitt himself contributes to the toxicity of the political environment when he dismisses the climate concerns of a U.S. Senator as nothing but “religious fervor.” Moreover, the only evidence put forward of a threat to his physical safety is a few rude comments.
I don’t wish the Administrator any harm, but I wonder if there aren’t less costly ways for Pruitt to protect his anonymity and person. Having served as senior staff to an unpopular political appointee, I know there are practical, low-cost ways to accomplish the same end. For example, be sure the “boss” is surrounded in coach only by staff. Use the special lounges available to frequent travelers to limit having to mingle with the general population. Ask airline staff to let the principal and his staff board first or last, as appropriate.
Laugh if you will, but I’m willing to bet that dark glasses, a hat and a clip-on beard will fool most of the people enough of the time to allow Pruitt to get to where he’s going without hearing from someone just exercising their First Amendment rights.
[i] LIHEAP helps pay for the energy bills of low-income families and is a program of the Department of Health and Human Services.
[ii] WAP helps pay for energy efficiency retrofits for low-income homeowners and is a program of EERE. The $121 million budget is part of the overall proposed EERE reductions.
[iii] To see a list of the 10 programs most greatly impacted by the White House’s proposed budget see http://www.govini.com/editorial-item/the-10-largest-programs-on-trumps-chopping-block/
[iv] The 2017 fiscal year was from Oct 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017.
[v] In civil cases these are called Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEP). In criminal cases these are done but do not have the same label.
Photo credits: Unedited Pruitt courtesy of Wikipedia, hats by https://en-us.lovehats.com, glasses by www.glassesusa.com
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.