The Trump administration is preparing to ask for even deeper funding cuts to clean energy research at the Energy Department -- just months after Congress rejected proposed cuts to those offices.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget on Friday directed the department to submit a budget request that would reduce funding for all nondefense offices by 5 percent from what the administration sent to Congress for fiscal 2019. The guidance was described in a June 22 memo sent by John Vonglis, the department’s chief financial officer, to agency heads and obtained by The Washington Post.
But that 2019 budget request submitted in February was roundly rejected by Congress, which appropriated funding for alternative energy research above the level the Trump administration requested.
The OMB request for even less funding for scientific and applied energy research is likely to be a tough pill for Congress to swallow this time around. Yet both budget requests are a signal that OMB, led by the fiscal hawk Mick Mulvaney, wants to reshuffle priorities for the sprawling Energy Department. (The Energy Department declined to comment for this report, and OMB did not reply to a request for comment.)
Under President Barack Obama, the department led federal research into cleaner forms of energy production meant to reduce emissions of climate-warming gases. But President Trump’s White House wants to instead boost outlays for the department’s weapons program. In addition to doing energy research, the Energy Department is responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
For example, the Trump administration sought in February to slash the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) to $696 million for fiscal 2019, a 66 percent cut from the 2017 budget.
A cut of 5 percent would bring it down even lower, to $661 million. That figure stands in stark contrast to EERE’s current funding level of $2.3 billion passed by Congress in an omnibus spending bill in March.
Similarly, the budget of an office working on carbon capture and storage, sometimes called “clean coal,” would drop to $477 million for fiscal 2020 under such a cut. The current budget for that bureau, the Office of Fossil Energy, is almost double that at $727 million. Trump frequently makes mention of "beautiful, clean coal" in campaign-style speeches, though it is unclear if he understands that term usually refers to methods of capturing the carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change.
Bureaus conducting basic science and nuclear energy research could similarly be diminished in the White House’s 2020 request, even though reviving the nation's nuclear power plants is a goal of the Trump administration.
Members of Congress, including several Republican senators with Energy Department laboratories in their states, have pushed back against the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, which would have imperiled local, high-paying research jobs.
In recent months, Energy Department officials have had to defend the OMB’s budget request in front of upset members of Congress reminding them that they — and not the president — hold the power of the purse.
When asked in March during a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water issues about a proposal to eliminate the popular Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, Energy Secretary Rick Perry responded that “you have my commitment that I’m going to work with this committee.”
“We’re going to honor and follow instructions,” Perry added.
And when Daniel Simmons, Trump’s nominee to run EERE, testified in front of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, he also said he would follow congressional spending orders. “Congress has the final say when it comes to appropriating dollars,” he said.
The budget-writing process for fiscal 2020 outlined in the memo is preliminary, and subject to change. But OMB’s interest in shrinking the portfolio of the Energy Department’s nonweapons work is long-standing.
Just last week, Mulvaney unveiled a radical overhaul of the federal bureaucracy that including merging the Energy Department's applied-energy program into a single “innovation” office.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser, sees the plan as “a back-door attempt to cut energy innovation funding,” he said last week.
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— “Stubborn opposition”: Meanwhile during the World Gas Conference in Washington, Perry decried hesitance about fossil fuels in the United States and around the world. “I wish I could tell you that the entire developed world is on board with our vision. I wish I could, but I cannot… In some quarters, at home and abroad, there is still this stubborn opposition to natural gas and other fossil fuels,” he said during his keynote speech for the multiday event. He also noted predictions that oil, gas and coal would be a majority of the energy mix by 2040, according to CNBC. “The answer is not to exclude oil and gas and coal from the world's energy mix,” he said. “For the sake of energy security. For the sake of economic security. For the sake of national security. I think for the sake of environmental progress. For the sake of our fellow human beings, we must honor the right of every nation to responsibly use every fuel at its disposal.”
— No new mission for NOAA: The acting head of the nation’s top oceanic and meteorological agency insists there will be no change to its mission, which focuses on climate change research and marine conservation. An outcry followed after an internal presentation was leaked showing proposed adjustments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s mission statement, which included removing the word “climate.”
But Timothy Gallaudet told The Post’s Chris Mooney the presentation was not a “final, vetted proposal” and it was “not intended to exclude NOAA’s important climate and conservation efforts, which are essential for protecting lives and the environment.” He added it was “not reviewed by the Office of the Secretary prior to the meeting.”
— Pruitt watch: Conservative allies of Scott Pruitt called on the Environmental Protection Agency head last year to remove a career agency employee in an effort to derail the release of a federal climate change report, according to newly released emails. Politico reports former EPA enforcement attorney David Schnare, who is also a former general counsel for the E&E Legal Institute, emailed Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson about an effort to “recall and replace” career agency staffer Lisa Matthews. “[Matthews's] position has management responsibility over the entire committee and can stop action on the rewrite of the National Climate Assessment, a quiet effort now under way to impose the IPCC view of the science on the U.S. government,” Schnare wrote, referring to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Schnare added Jackson could expect a call from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, or Smith’s chief of staff. Schnare told Politico he didn’t “have any recollection” of the email.
“It is unclear how replacing Matthews would have derailed the climate assessment, a comprehensive process that involves more than a dozen agencies,” Politico reports. “However, Schnare‘s email specifically cites her as a keystone official whose replacement could hamper the report.”
— Corn wars: The EPA on Tuesday proposed increasing the biofuel blending mandate from the requirement of 19.29 billion gallons to 19.88 billion gallons for 2019 under the Renewable Fuel Standard, Reuters reports. “I’ve traveled to numerous states and heard firsthand about the importance of the RFS to farmers and local communities across the country,” Pruitt said in a statement.
Despite the increase, Pruitt may have already burned his bridges with many Republican senators from farm states over taking the side of oil interests too many times in the past:
- “The topline numbers are encouraging, but I’m highly skeptical," Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) said. "As we’ve seen over the last year, it’s not the proposal or even the final rule that matters as much as what actually happens."
- Meanwhile, Mike Rounds (S.D.), like Grassley, said that while he’s pleased with the proposed increase to the biofuel mandate, he said he has called for more information about reports the agency has provided “hardship” waivers that exempt oil refineries. "[U]ntil the agency answers how it intends to assure the 15 billion gallons in grain ethanol is met in light of reports of ‘hardship’ waivers being granted to small refineries, this is not something we can rely on," Rounds said in a statement.
— A “unanimity of critical comments”: A judge on Monday ruled a federal agency’s reasoning for killing thousands of animals in Idaho was “not convincing and objective” because it did not adequately consider the effect on the environment and concerns raised by agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The decision by Chief District Judge B. Lynn Winmill could have a broader impact on the federal Wildlife Services, a division of the Agriculture Department that removes and kills millions of animals each year,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. “Coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, beavers, blackbirds, mountain lions, foxes and a wide range of others identified as nuisance animals are slain on behalf of ranchers, farmers, homeowners and airport operators — actions that are routinely challenged by environmentalists.” The judge said under federal law, “an agency may use a convincing and objective analysis to reject criticisms and refuse to prepare a full environmental impact statement … But that was not done here.”
— Tariff woes: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) criticized the Trump administration’s tariff policies on Tuesday following the decision by Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson to move production out of the United States. “I don’t think tariffs are the right way to go,” Ryan told reporters, adding tariffs are “basically taxes,” according to the Associated Press.
Taking it personally: White House aides said Trump feels betrayed by the motorcycle maker’s announcement, The Post’s David J. Lynch and Philip Rucker report, and Tuesday morning’s Twitter tirade made it clear he took the move personally. “But the outburst also reflected a president grappling with the effect of policies he expected to produce a more favorable outcome, say trade experts,” Rucker and Lynch write.
Meanwhile: Trump’s top economic adviser, Kevin Hassett said Harley-Davidson is an exception to the rule. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers said direct investment within the United States has “skyrocketed,” The Post’s Danielle Paquette reports. “There’s a massive amount of activity coming home,” Hassett said at a Post event on Tuesday. “Harley-Davidson is an interesting story, but if you look at the data, the opposite is happening.”
But many, many economic experts disagree with that notion: Even Gary Cohn, Trump's former economic adviser who resigned shortly after the president announced the tariffs, "cautioned earlier this month that a trade war could wipe out the economic gains of the GOP tax law."
— Between a sock and a hard place: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted then deleted a photo on Tuesday that showed off a pair of Trump-themed socks that read “Make America Great Again.” Zinke later apologized for the “mistake” and instead posted the image (above) with the campaign slogan blacked out.
Why it matters: In March, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel issued guidance regarding the Hatch Act, which prohibits most federal officials from participating in electoral campaigns while on the job, that warned that while on duty or in the workplace, federal employees “may not: wear, display, or distribute items with the slogan 'Make America Great Again' or any other materials from President Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns.”
- The nonprofit ethics group Campaign for Accountability told The Post it will call for a review of whether the tweet violated federal ethics laws. “The Hatch Act is simple: it is illegal for government employees to engage in political activity,” Daniel Stevens, the group's executive director, said in a statement. “The Secretary of the Interior should know better than to promote a campaign slogan while touring a national park. Stevens added Zinke's apology “only confirms that he broke the law.”
- Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, said Zinke's “choice of hosiery shows he just doesn’t care or think about ethics in a million ways, large and small.”
— Colder than cold: A new analysis of satellite data shows the top of Antarctica’s ice sheet, a region with the coldest weather on the planet, may be even more frigid than scientists thought. The authors of research published in Geophysical Research Letters found “approximately 100” sites with temperatures near minus 98 Celsius during the winters of 2004-2016, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “Before analysis of satellite data, the coldest temperature measured on Earth had been minus 89 Celsius, recorded on the East Antarctic Plateau at Russia’s Vostok Station in July 1983,” Samenow reports. “The satellite data analysis published in 2013 analyzed 32 years’ worth of data to find that colder temperatures were present, closer to minus 93 Celsius. This latest study recalibrated satellite data using more up-to-date weather station data and concluded the coldest temperatures were 5 degrees lower than that.”
— Blurred ocean lines: The Arctic Ocean is warming so quickly that it will soon be another limb of the Atlantic Ocean, as scientists find the ocean’s characteristics are changing entirely. Research published in Nature Climate Change this week details the findings of Sigrid Lind, a researcher with the Institute of Marine Research in Tromsø, Norway and two colleagues and what they call the “Arctic warming hotspot.” “The northern Barents Sea, to the north of Scandinavia and east of the remote archipelago of Svalbard, has warmed extremely rapidly — by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit just since the year 2000 — standing out even in the fastest-warming part of the globe,” Mooney reports. “Now Lind and her colleagues have shown, based on temperature and salinity measurements taken on summer research cruises, that this warming is being accompanied by a stark change of character, as the Atlantic Ocean is in effect taking over the region and converting it into a very different entity.”
— "ABOARD THE SHIP MORE SPACIOUS THAN THE HEAVENS:" Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the leader of 300 million Christians worldwide, told a group of about 200 religious leaders and activists — with Post reporter Juliet Eilperin in tow — about moving “beyond intellectualism when it came to the environment."
“The environment has defined 78-year-old Bartholomew’s tenure for more than a quarter-century,” Eilperin writes. “The gathering at sea this month was the ninth he has organized since the mid-1990s. This one focused on Attica, the peninsula surrounding Athens that juts out into the Aegean Sea, and Bartholomew brought together scientists and clergy to examine the state of bodies of water including the Danube and Amazon rivers, the Baltic and Adriatic seas, and the Arctic Ocean.”
— Tree count falling: The world’s tropical forests lost about 39 million acres of trees last year, according to a new report published Wednesday by Global Forest Watch. “That made 2017 the second-worst year for tropical tree cover loss in the satellite record, just below the losses in 2016,” the New York Times reports. “The data provides only a partial picture of forest health around the world, since it does not capture trees that are growing back after storms, fires or logging. But separate studies have confirmed that tropical forests are shrinking overall, with losses outweighing the gains.”
— Small-town oil boom: Oil-producing regions across the country are booming as the United States pumps a record amount of oil. “The upswing has helped spark an oil boom by making shale drilling profitable in more parts of the country,” the Wall Street Journal reports, highlighting the growth that has especially helped areas in the Permian Basin. “Texas has flourished, closing last year as the nation’s fastest-growing economy, with fourth quarter seasonally adjusted growth of 5.2%,” per the report. “In New Mexico, which has struggled economically in recent years, the economy grew 0.8% last year after declining 0.1% in 2016, when oil prices slid below $30 a barrel."
— More oil news:
- The State Department on Tuesday warned allies to cut oil imports from Iran completely by November, and that no waivers would be granted from secondary sanctions against foreign companies that continue working with Tehran, The Post’s Carol Morello reports. “The [State Department] official spoke to reporters by telephone in the middle of a worldwide road trip he and other officials are making to urge governments to start decreasing their imports from Iran in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last month,” Morello writes.
“U.S. benchmark crude rose more than 3% Tuesday. Brent, the international benchmark, was up more than 2%,” following the move to shorten the deadline for cutting off Iranian exports, the Wall Street Journal reports.
- In response to constrained Iranian supply and pressure from Trump, Saudi Aramco, the state-run oil company of Saudi Arabia, said it plans to pump a record amount of oil next month — about 10.8 million barrels a day, Bloomberg News reports. “That would surpass the previous high of 10.72 million barrels a day in November 2016," per the report.
- The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds an executive session on various legislative measures.
- The 27th World Gas Conference continues
— Deleted scene from the new Jurassic World: A woman captured video of two iguanas facing off outside a Starbucks in Boca Raton, Fla.: