Obama's Budget Reveals Depth and Breadth of His Climate Agenda

However the negotiations with Congress turn out, the budget will lock in the course of climate policy through the next presidential election.

Obama's 2016 budget proposal, released on Feb. 2, 2015, includes familiar elements such as more green-energy R&D. Among the novelties are new incentives for states to meet the low-carbon targets of proposed Clean Air Act regulations. Credit: White House photo

This story has been updated on Feb. 3 at 9:00 PM ET to add more budget details and reactions.

Many of the climate-change goals were old, but some were new in President Obama's budget request to Congress, published on Monday.

Familiar elements included more green-energy R&D, permanent status for tax breaks that subsidize renewable production of electricity, and yet another plea to end existing subsidies for fossil fuels. Among the novelties: new incentives for states to meet the low-carbon targets of proposed Clean Air Act regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which would manage the $4 billion Clean Power State Incentive Fund, said it would support "state efforts to go above and beyond their carbon pollution reduction goals in the power sector."

Some environmental advocates have criticized the EPA's proposed power regulations for not going far enough, with some states likely to meet the targets without introducing tough new measures.

In a significant new argument to bolster his case for action on climate, Obama's budget warns that if Congress delays spending now, it will only pay a higher price in years to come.

"The Federal Government has broad exposure to escalating costs and lost revenue as a direct or indirect result of a changing climate," says an extensive discussion of the financial risks facing the nation from global warming.

Even though Congress, which controls the purse strings, is now in Republican hand, it's worth paying attention to both the overarching message and to the details in a presidential budget. No single document in the policy universe better outlines a president's priorities, and this one shows the depth and breadth of the administration's climate agenda. It covers the fiscal year that begins next October. And however the negotiations with Congress turn out, it will lock in the course of climate policy through the next presidential election.

"In order to secure America's energy future and protect our children from the impacts of climate change," an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) cover sheet said, "the budget invests in clean energy, improving energy security, and enhancing preparedness and resilience to climate change. These investments support the President's Climate Action Plan, helping to expand American leadership in the clean energy economy with new businesses, jobs, and opportunities for American workers."

It called for "leading in the development of clean energy alternatives and the promotion of energy efficiency while moving toward energy security through safe and responsible domestic energy production."

The full budget, if you count all the pages of data justifying its programs line by line, runs into tens of thousands of pages. The White House spelled out the main selling points in simplified summaries released by OMB and by each agency. National Journal, among others, provided an early run-down of overall energy and climate programs—and, in an aside, described why some of them "are never going to happen."

Obama's climate ambitions may be far-reaching, but they focus on a few main themes.

First of all, Obama wants money to carry out the central programs of his Climate Action Plan, including his use of the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from electric power plants for the first time. These are the programs that might directly bring down emissions of greenhouse gases. At the very least, he'd like emissions to be lower when he leaves office than when he was first sworn in.

Second, he wants to sustain the progress of federally funded research into new technologies, especially into cars and trucks that use less and less petroleum, but also into ways to accelerate the lowering of costs of producing wind, solar and other clean forms of energy. This part of the budget has the best chance of weaning the nation off fossil fuels, but not until long after he leaves office.

Third, recognizing that climate change is now upon us, Obama wants increased spending on adapting the nation to its worst effects—improving our resiliency to storms, droughts, floods, pestilence and the like. This is important not just because it protects people and property, but because it drives home the message that if we do nothing to stave off worsening global warming, we will pay the price in federal budgets for many years to come.

Fourth, the big strategic objective is to exert American leadership over international talks for a new climate treaty that the world's nations want to approve in Paris just 10 months from now. That means showing the rest of the world that the U.S. is committed to paying its own share of the burden, and to helping poorer nations pay for their shares. So the budget will include the first down payment toward the $3 billion the United States has pledged to the Green Climate Fund, the chief United Nations vehicle for climate finance related to the Paris treaty.

One of the main new proposals is EPA's offer to assist states as they try to deeply cut carbon emissions from power plants.

The question is, will Congress zero out that proposal as part of a broad assault on the EPA's coal-power rules? Or, will lawmakers go along with aid to their home states for a program that not all of them oppose?

Reuters said that the budget for clean energy research and development next year, at $7.4 billion, was $900 million more than Congress allotted for these Energy Department programs this year. Obama had sought $6.9 billion for this part of the energy budget this year, and Congress cut it to $6.5 billion, but also rearranged how it would be spent.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's immediate response to the overall budget was unenthusiastic.

He called it "another top-down, backward-looking document that caters to powerful political bosses on the left and never balances—ever."

And that was before he and his aides had a chance to look at the fine details of what the budget request would mean for coal, the beleaguered bastion of his home state of Kentucky.

McConnell announced that he had taken a new assignment on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EPA's budget. "I will continue to fight back against this Administration's anti-coal jobs regulations," he declared.

A pro-coal group, the American Council for Clean Coal Electricity, denounced the EPA's spending plans, issuing a statement that "President Obama has resorted to bribing states with taxpayer money to implement a rule many are already working fervently to overturn."

But major environmental organizations, heaped praise on the Obama proposals. "If we hope to avoid the worst damages of climate change," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, "we need to put our money where our mouth is."

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