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Priority changes on green policies

Democrats in Congress turn to lower-profile projects to combat global warming and aim to boost funding 33%.

August 21, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

washington -- Reflecting a shift in priorities under the Democratic majority, Congress is moving to spend as much as $6.7 billion next fiscal year to combat global warming, an increase of nearly one-third from the current year.

House appropriations bills call for about $2 billion in new spending on initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil dependency, significantly expanding the budgets for numerous federal research initiatives and launching some new ones.

While legislation to raise vehicle miles-per-gallon standards and cap emissions from power plants has been slower moving -- because of resistance from some lawmakers -- Democrats have turned to the budget to advance their environmental priorities by increasing spending on a variety of lower-profile programs.

That is likely to set up a showdown this fall between Congress and President Bush, who wants to spend less on climate-change initiatives. The White House budget office, which has criticized excessive spending in the overall appropriations bills, noted that the president's proposed budget provides for a 3% increase in spending for climate-change activities.

"Congress is putting its money where its mouth is," said Lowell Ungar, senior policy analyst at the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington coalition of business, consumer, environmental and government leaders. "They are devoting real resources to trying to address the problem of climate change."

Lawmakers from both parties also see the public's heightened interest in climate change and energy security as an opportunity to steer federal money to their states through earmarks billed as environmentally friendly.

Money has been set aside for scores of home-state research initiatives and construction projects, including $1 million for a plug-in hybrid vehicle demonstration project at Southern California's South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"Green is becoming very fashionable," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), a senior appropriator who secured $500,000 for a geothermal demonstration project. "I think members are going to be challenged in their district" about how they are responding to concerns about climate change and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, he said.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), for example, got $500,000 for a fuel-cell project by Superprotonic, a Pasadena company started by Caltech scientists. "America needs to wean itself off of foreign oil," Schiff said in a statement. "This is as much a national security imperative as it is an environmental one. And federal support for innovative new technologies is part of the answer."

Early this year, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee asked scientists how government efforts could be cranked up to combat global warming and reduce oil use. "The question then became: How do we get the biggest bang for our buck?" said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) "We've only accomplished a small first step, but it is a step in the right direction."

Environmental initiatives are scattered throughout the 12 House appropriations bills for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Kei Koizumi, research and development policy program director of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, said money for addressing climate change had been added "even in areas where you might not expect to find it."

The bill funding foreign-aid programs calls on the U.S. Export-Import Bank to increase investment in renewable energy projects -- a provision that its sponsors, Schiff and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), say could lead to about $1 billion in additional green exports in 2008.

The bill funding the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires it to incorporate "robust green building" standards.

And the bill funding Congress provides $3.9 million to the Green the Capitol initiative that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is pushing to make the House carbon neutral by the end of next year.

Some of the largest increases are in the bill that funds the Department of Energy.

The House provided about $1.9 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, about 52% more than the administration requested. Just two years ago under the Republican-controlled Congress, the programs received about $1.2 billion.

The Senate has yet to complete its spending bills, but its appropriations committee has recommended about $1.7 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

The House energy appropriations bill also provides $44 million to promote geothermal energy, a ninefold increase compared with current spending. The Bush administration, on the other hand, has proposed doing away with spending on the geothermal energy program, contending that it is a mature industry.

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