Parsing The Budget Bills

The signing of the debt ceiling bill this week promises to protect the nation's credit rating, but at the cost of serious cutbacks to be named later. Reporter Elana Schor of Greenwire describes the potential effects of the debt legislation on environmental and energy projects, and looks at other spending bills currently making their way through Congress.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Unless you've been in a cave for the past week or so, you may just have heard something about Congress and legislation to adjust the nation's debt ceiling.

And while the legislation was passed and quickly signed by President Obama to prevent damage to the nation's credit rating, many of the details involved were left for later: cuts to be identified by a super-committee at a later date.

Joining me now to talk about what all this might mean for environmental and energy issues is Elana Schor. She's a staff reporter at the Energy & Environment Daily and Greenwire, and she's been keeping tabs in Congress. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Elana.

ELANA SCHOR: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: What, in the recent debt ceiling bill, affects the environment?

SCHOR: Well, the word environment - and for that matter, energy - isn't mentioned, Ira. But what is set are targets for discretionary spending. Now, these are the types of programs - not just energy and environment, but education, housing - basically, anything that's not entitlements or the military.

And what it promises is huge cuts across the board, below even the levels that we saw back in April, when the government nearly shut down, and billions were cut.

FLATOW: So we don't really know, then, what kinds of things - what kinds of things might be cut.

SCHOR: Well, I mean, one of the first targets - lawmakers are already saying this - are grants that are given to states and localities to clean up their water supplies. This took $100 million hit-plus in the April deal, and House Republicans are eying it already.

It's fairly easy, unfortunately, to cut grants that go out the door because, you know, states need them. There's no member of Congress who's going to fight for them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Going into this battle, there was an emphasis from the Democratic side about ending subsidies for oil and gas production and oil industry tax breaks. Did any of those plans make the final bill?

SCHOR: Unfortunately not, because, frankly, the oil industry made a very strong case for keeping its economic benefits, the fact that other industries, you know, receive similar tax deductions. And part of that unfortunate factor there is that ethanol also got its subsidies taken off the table, even though the industry was saying we're ready to get rid of them.

So there was a real lack of interest in considering revenue of any kind.

FLATOW: Was - were regulations for pollutants affected or attached or - onto this bill at the last moment?

SCHOR: They were not. This bill was kept relatively clean of any kind of last-minute, you know, policy prescriptions. But that said, the super-committee may well put that back on the table. They have a pretty broad mandate, anything that can be shown to save the government money.

FLATOW: So it'll be up to the super-committee to decide what might be - they might see as the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, that's left in this kind of legislation.

SCHOR: Exactly. And, you know, that could - and one has to kind of almost assume it'll include energy and environmental program cuts. Now - and we haven't even gotten to what happens, Ira, if the super-committee can't come to an agreement, or if what they do suggest is shot down by Congress, because then you have what's called a sequestration, where's there's across-the-boards cuts in all these programs, again, of more than a trillion dollars over 10 years.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Any thoughts that maybe there might be less money for the EPA? I know Congress - there are members of Congress who are not very happy with the EPA. Might they try to cut some money out of that, for example?

SCHOR: Absolutely. I mean, those grants that I mentioned earlier for safe drinking water and for wastewater treatment go through EPA. And there are plenty of other EPA programs that are already preparing to deal with some really, really lean years.

You know, when the president went on television and said these spending levels haven't been seen since the Eisenhower era, you hear a lot of environmentalists, you know, clutching their heart and saying, well, that was before the Clean Air Act. So if we don't have money to enforce that, uh-oh is kind of the sentiment.

FLATOW: Speaking of the Clean Air Act, what about other bills that might be in jeopardy here, or bills that might come up that put environmental legislation or environmental regulations or energy in jeopardy? For example, there's a lot - there are a lot of energy subsidies to help alternative energies out now, to help them develop a market. Might they be in jeopardy?

SCHOR: They very well might be. You know, Democrats are pretty eager to get those oil and gas benefits back in the mix for the super-committee. But if that happens, one has to expect that Republicans will say, well, what about the subsidies going to solar and wind? And that is almost bound to happen soon, because this committee, Ira, has to make its recommendations by Thanksgiving, which is not too far off in congressional time.

FLATOW: They're on vacation now, right?

SCHOR: Yes, they are.

FLATOW: All right, Elana, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.

SCHOR: Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Elana Schor is a staff reporter at the Energy & Environment Daily and Greenwire.

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