House: Less money for EPA’s climate fight, more money for drought-worsened wildfires

The House Appropriations Committee released its 2015 Interior and Environment Bill on Tuesday, calling for increased funds for wildfire prevention programs and the Forest Service. The goal of that funding is to "help prevent and fight the wildland fires that cause millions of dollars in damages every year," as committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) put it.

At the same time, the committee proposed dropping the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency from 2014 levels by $717 million -- a sizable cut of 9 percent. Why? Because of the agency's "various harmful, costly, and potentially job-killing regulations." Among which the committee cites: "[T]he bill prohibits the EPA from implementing new greenhouse gas regulations for new and existing power plants." Those greenhouse gas regulations are intended to help curb climate change.

And climate change, the federal government has repeatedly indicated, is expected to make the wildfire season longer and more severe.

In other words, House Republicans want to increase funding for wildfire prevention while decreasing funding to fight something the federal government (and scientists) say causes more wildfires -- research that their caucus largely rejects.


Kelseyville firefighters prepare to pull back from the fire on Butts Canyon Road, as the fire jumps the road, Tuesday July, 1. (AP Photo/The Press Democrat, Kent Porter)

Thanks largely to the massive drought that's drying out California, the seasonal outlook for wildfire is above average for much of the West. In May, the state's governor, Jerry Brown (D), indicated that state was bracing for the worst; the once-seasonal threat of wildfire has become a year-round danger in conditions like these.

On Tuesday, President Obama asked Congress for $615 million to help fight wildfires. The Appropriations Committee appears to have been thinking the same thing, adding $149 million to the 2015 budget for fighting wildfires and increasing the Forest Service's budget by $85.7 million. "Much of this funding," the committee's statement reads, "is related to wildland fire prevention and suppression."

In 2013, the government spent $1.7 billion fighting fires, down from the near-record $1.9 billion it spent in 2012. In 2012, over 67,000 fires broke out across the country, consuming an average of 137.61 acres each -- the highest such figure in the available dataset. The year 2012 was also the warmest year in the recorded temperature history of the continental United States.

The National Climate Assessment, an overview of the risk posed by climate change that incorporates research and analysis from independent and government experts, described the future of the Southwest bluntly: "Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires," it reads. "Have," in the past or present tense.

That echoes the EPA's description of the region's future: "While severe droughts are already part of the Southwest climate, human-induced climate change will likely result in more frequent and more severe droughts with associated increases in wildfires." It mirrors the concerns of the Department of the Interior and of the Forest Service itself.

Last year, NASA released this video.

Government agencies, in other words, broadly agree that climate change will result in more fires.

The GOP-controlled House appears not to see it that way -- or at least doesn't think the EPA's methods to prevent them are worth the job losses they argue will ensue. Addressing climate change is still not politically popular. Not only did the House Appropriations Committee single out the EPA for cuts, but its climate efforts received specific mention. Rogers's home state of Kentucky, which still prides itself on its coal production, has become a fierce battleground over the EPA as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) battles Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes this November. Coal and the EPA are at the center of that fight, and Grimes takes a decidedly anti-EPA position.

It is true that the EPA's carbon dioxide limits singled out by the committee wouldn't by themselves reverse global warming. They are, however, one of the most significant efforts the agency has undertaken on the issue. The House's Appropriations allocations -- more money to fight fires, less to address what the government and scientists see as a cause of those fires -- is a pretty good indication of how far apart government scientists and government decision-makers are when it comes to the controversial topic.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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