With so much noise coming out of Washington DC these days, from phony bill signing ceremonies to endless provocative tweets and misinformation, it’s easy to lose sight of the real, consequential policy battles going on at the moment.
On the environment, the big battle in Congress will take place over the budget late this summer. A temporary stopgap measure helped preserve funding for key environmental initiatives, such as clean energy research and transit projects like Caltrain electrification. But that bill just kicked the can down the road to September, when the government must act to avoid a shutdown.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget would zero out basically all environmental programs, including all new transit projects. I’m following the fate of clean energy research at the uber-successful ARPA-E in particular, at the Department of Energy:
September is now the new showdown date for the future of federally-funded breakthrough energy research in the United States. And if Trump has his say, the September fight could be waged in a higher-stakes, post-filibuster, 51-votes-to-pass-a-bill Senate. (Regardless, apparently, of any consequences for Republicans when Democrats next control the White House and/or Congress.)
On transit, the administration wants to end all federal support for urban transit projects, essentially ending a half-century of federal involvement in this area. As Transportation for America writes:
The administration reiterates their belief that transit is just a minor, local concern.
“Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” they write, making it clear that they see no benefit in providing grants to cities of all sizes to build new bus rapid transit or rail lines, or expand existing, well-used lines so they can carry more passengers.
The administration even uses the example of local cities approving their own funding measures for transit as a reason to discontinue federal support, when those local measures were actually sold as ways to leverage federal dollars in this longstanding partnership.
The good news is that many of these programs and initiatives have bipartisan support. We saw that in action with the stopgap measure passed this spring. But that support will be put to the test as we witness an assault on federal dollars for the environment and public health like we’ve never seen before.
The environmental policy news from Washington DC recently has not been great, to say the least. So it’s worth stopping to appreciate some recent wins.
First, in a surprising and close vote today, the U.S. Senate failed to overturn Obama administration regulations on methane emissions from fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Methane is one of the most harmful greenhouse gas pollutants, and this rule was critical to limiting those emissions.
Using the once-obscure Congressional Review Act, Congress could have not only wiped out the rule but also precluded the Bureau of Land Management from regulating in this area again. The oil and gas industry lost in the senate by one vote, with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona the deciding votes (all Democrats voted against it).
Second, in the recent budget deal to keep the federal government funded through September, congressional negotiators saved the most important clean tech research agency, ARPA-E in the Department of Energy. As Utility Dive reported, ARPA-E actually received a $15 million boost instead of being eliminated, as the Trump administration had proposed.
Finally, the Caltrain electrification funding, which Congressional Republicans had held up because the electrification would one day get high speed rail to San Francisco, came through in the same budget deal with a partial amount of $100 million out of the original $647 million. It’s no guarantee that the rest of the dollars will be approved, but it’s a good sign.
So while the news can be gloomy on the environment, and there are a lot of battles still to come, it’s good to see common sense rule-making and investments still moving forward right now.
My favorite clean tech federal agency is hands down ARPA-E, which as I blogged before is the most important agency you’ve never heard of. It’s funding breakthrough clean technologies and having tremendous success bringing risky and innovative tech to market.
So of course the Trump administration is doing everything it can to undermine the agency. In addition to zeroing it out for funding in its proposed (but probably DOA) budget, Trump’s team now has the agency halting approved grants from going out the door.
It’s a frustrating decision, because these technologies are exactly the kind of thing we want to incubate and develop here in America — if not for the environmental benefit then at least for the economic gains.
ThinkProgress has a nice description of the agency’s work that is now threatened, including this success story:
The agency is focused on “high-impact, high-risk and high-reward” projects, Townsend noted, and he agreed with the former program director that these are areas in which the private sector likely would not invest. For example, researchers for a group called Makani Power created a wind turbine project, funded by ARPA-E, that sends airborne kite-like wind turbines high into the air where they harness a more consistent and powerful wind source than earthbound wind turbines. Makani Power designed the drone kites to automatically take off and adjust themselves to the windstream to maximize energy production.
ARPA-E awarded Makani Power a $3 million grant in 2009 for the project. In 2013, Google X, the search engine company’s research and investment arm, acquired Makani Power, turning the research project into a success story for ARPA-E.
Let’s hope this freeze on grants is temporary, and that the agency’s bipartisan allies in Congress can save the day when it comes to longer-term funding.
If there’s one area where Trump is likely to have legislative success, it’s probably the budget and taxes. A partisan majority of Republicans in Congress will go along with any tax and spending cuts, leaving Trump in a good position to get his way. And his current budget proposal is nothing less than a full-scale assault on environmental protections and public health.
It’s a bad combination of Trump’s seemingly genuine antipathy to government regulations and his party being captured by big polluters in the oil and gas industry.
My UC Berkeley Law colleague Dan Farber runs through the numbers on Legal Planet, but they basically include massive cuts to environmental enforcement, restoration and monitoring, including on climate data, as well as eliminating research in clean energy.
The last part on clean energy cuts is particularly frustrating. I’ve blogged before about the success of ARPA-E, the most important governmental agency you’ve never heard of. It’s the “moonshot” agency that is funding breakthrough technologies in batteries, solar power and other vital technology. Since 2009, it has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects, of which 45 have then raised $1.25 billion in private sector funds.
So of course Trump and his allies want to eliminate the agency completely.
But all is not yet lost. The budget will go through a lot of sausage-making in Congress, and even many Republicans are invested in some of these programs, given the benefits they provide their districts.
But environmental and public health advocates will be starting from a tough position, and this is one area where Trump is likely to get a lot of what he wants.
ARPA-E just might save the world. And you probably never heard of it. As I wrote back in January 2015 (okay, I’ll just quote myself here):
Why is ARPA-E so important? Because this Department of Energy group is searching out and funding those moonshot — or sunshot — technologies that will give us the energy breakthroughs we need to fight climate change. If we’re going to find the better battery to finally wean us off oil and into electric drives, or build the cheap energy storage device to capture surplus renewables and truly decarbonize the grid, or make our solar panels even more efficient and cheap, chances are ARPA-E will be involved in making that happen.
Now the agency, on the occasion of its seventh birthday, is releasing a report detailing some of its successes. Per Utility Dive:
Since 2009, ARPA-E has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects. Of those, 45 have gone on to raise $1.25 billion in publicly-reported private sector funding.
“ARPA-E fills a critical gap in the innovation ecosystem, investing to de-risk and accelerate the development of high risk, high impact technologies that would otherwise find it difficult to secure investment,” said Jesse Jenkins, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“This is an essential role for government to step into, helping bridge the ‘technological valley of death,’ a consistent dearth of private sector funding that impedes the translation of promising research into commercial technologies,” he added.
The article describes a few examples, particularly with battery systems and other energy storage technologies. These funded projects include hybrid fuel cells, zinc-air batteries, as well as flywheels and a vegetable-based flow battery developed by Harvard researchers.
This is the kind of agency that the federal government should be funding to the brim, especially with this impressive track record on deployment. It’s also one of the critical issues at stake between a Trump or Clinton victory this fall. If we want to continue on this path and fund the breakthrough clean technologies of the future, the choice is clearly for Clinton.
And in the meantime, the success to date for ARPA-E is a big credit to President Obama and the agency staff. Let’s hope they continue the momentum, as the health of the planet depends on it.
With a name straight out of a WALL-E future, it’s ARPA-E, also known as the “U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy” (don’t confuse them with DARPA-E, its cousin that focuses on defense).
Why is ARPA-E so important? Because this Department of Energy group is searching out and funding those moonshot — or sunshot — technologies that will give us the energy breakthroughs we need to fight climate change. If we’re going to find the better battery to finally wean us off oil and into electric drives, or build the cheap energy storage device to capture surplus renewables and truly decarbonize the grid, or make our solar panels even more efficient and cheap, chances are ARPA-E will be involved in making that happen. From its website:
Since 2009, ARPA-E has funded over 360 potentially transformational energy technology projects. Many of these projects have already demonstrated early indicators of technical success. For example, ARPA-E awardees have:
- Developed a 1 megawatt silicon carbide transistor the size of a fingernail
- Engineered microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to make liquid transportation fuel
- Pioneered a near-isothermal compressed air energy storage system
Technical achievements like these have spurred millions of dollars in follow-on private-sector funding to a number of ARPA-E projects. In addition, many ARPA-E awardees have formed start-up or spin-off companies or partnered with other parts of the government and industry to advance their technologies.
If I were in charge of the federal budget, I would fund this agency to the brim. So I’m pleased to see ARPA-E announcing another round of funding, this time for $125 million for “renewable and non-renewable electricity generation, transmission, storage and distribution, as well as energy efficiency technologies.” The funds can also go to transportation-oriented projects, including those focused on fuels, electrification, and energy efficiency. You can read more here.
While I know it’s a huge stretch to imagine happening, I hope this new congress supports the agency in the budget process. It just may be the best hope we have for finding and developing the technologies needed to truly solve climate change.