As President Donald Trump prepares his to release his fiscal year 2020 budget request, he is expected to propose massive cuts to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) renewable energy and energy efficiency budget. This attempt comes despite similar requests being roundly rebuked by Congress in the past two years, and the fact that clean energy remains extremely popular among Republican lawmakers and voters.
“The United States is at the forefront of clean-energy efforts,” Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) wrote Friday in the Washington Post. “We are committed to adopting reasonable policies that maintain that edge, build on and accelerate current efforts, and ensure a robust innovation ecosystem.”
Earlier this week, in the first Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing dedicated to climate change in years, Murkowski singled out research, innovation, and efficiency as areas in which her committee can contribute to the ongoing debate over congressional action on climate change.
The White House doesn’t appear to be listening. Trump’s proposal will slash the budget for DOE’s Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (EERE) from $2.3 billion to $700 million — a roughly 70 percent cut — Bloomberg reported this week, citing a department official familiar with the plan. The full budget request is expected to be released Monday.
Trump, who rejects the scientific consensus regarding climate change and repeatedly vowed to zero out federal spending on clean energy research and development (R&D) as a candidate, proposed similarly dramatic cuts to EERE’s budget in both his fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019 proposals. The Republican-controlled Congress rejected both suggestions, providing over three times more money than the White House requested for the program last year. With Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, the steep cuts to renewable energy programs Trump is envisioning stand an even worse chance in Congress.
EERE, which invests in clean energy research and technology, has helped drive down the costs of several key technologies, while maintaining an impressively high rate of return. According to its website, an assessment of one-third of the program’s R&D portfolio found that an EERE taxpayer investment of $12 billion already has yielded an estimated net economic benefit of more than $230 billion.
Continuing to invest in R&D is mandatory to preserve any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change; a 2017 study by Duke University estimated that the spread of clean energy technologies globally would need to increase tenfold in order to meet the goals agreed upon in the Paris climate agreement. R&D advances in the last two decades have continued to push the cost of renewable energy down, making new renewables cheaper than operating existing coal power in many parts of the world.
While the parties may vary wildly when it comes to acknowledging the urgency of the climate crisis, strong federal government support for the renewable energy sector is a top priority for voters on both sides of the aisle. Poll after poll after poll has documented Republican support for clean energy. A 2016 survey of Trump voters specifically found that 75 percent support “action to accelerate the deployment and use of clean energy” — including solar, wind, energy efficiency, and community renewable projects.
Even now, as Republicans are under increasing pressure to respond to the popularity of the Green New Deal and offer their own plan for tackling climate change, they continue to reiterate their support for innovation. While railing against the Green New Deal on the Senate floor earlier this week, several Republican senators invoked the buzzword.
“Our ability to innovate is critical to the success of our economy,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said. “Investing in science in technology and increasing our ability to innovate is an important part of keeping our economy strong.”
Cornyn reiterated his support for innovation, “not a socialist power grab of the entire economy,” but didn’t offer anything close to a concrete solution to address climate change (nor did he say whether he accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is driving dangerous global warming).
The pivot to innovation has already become a common refrain from Republicans after the Green New Deal resolution, introduced last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), put them promptly on their heels. This likely originates in a 20-year-old strategy developed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, as ThinkProgress’ Joe Romm recently explained. In a memo to conservatives and the George W. Bush White House, Luntz suggested the most effective way to act as if you care about the environment, without supporting the regulations necessary to protect it, was to talk about “technology and innovation.”
Not if you’re in the Trump administration, apparently. The draconian cuts to renewable energy programs he will reportedly propose yet again — despite the fact that they will yet again be rejected by Congress — demonstrates just how far the White House has retrenched on this topic.
“American ingenuity has solved many of the great challenges of our time and is key to addressing climate change,” write Murkowski and Manchin, both of whom hail from fossil fuel-producing states and have supported many of Trump’s energy and environment nominees. “If the United States is going to lead by example, we must continue to lead the world in the development of new and improved technologies.”