angry man with green scissorsA new report called “Green Scissors” proposes to trim government spending by eliminating “subsidies and programs that both harm the environment and waste taxpayer dollars.” It was developed by (liberal green group) Friends of the Earth and (good-government group) Taxpayers for Common Sense, which have been doing versions of the report since 1995. In 2010, (consumer watchdog) Public Citizen signed on, and in 2011 the (conservative advocacy group) Heartland Institute signed on. You will recall Heartland Institute as the home of the nutbag right’s most vigorous climate deniers and sponsor of the much-mocked climate denier conference.

I’ve written about energy subsidies quite a bit — see this on the substance, this on the politics, and this on recent developments — and I won’t go over all of it again, but suffice to say, I think FOE is playing a very dangerous game here. I know lots of folks there and their hearts are in the right place, but I’m not sure they’ve got a good handle on today’s political economy.

First, briefly, on the substance of the report: Naturally I (and all sentient beings) support, in the abstract, cutting wasteful government spending that harms the environment. And the vast majority of the report’s recommended cuts seem fine to me. I’m all for cutting subsidies to Big Ag and Big Oil.

But the recommendation to cut the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the fledgling (and only) research agency devoted to energy, is just daft. And it’s based on conservative cant, the notion that all innovations come from the private sector (bullsh*t) or that the private sector is already doing enough research (bullsh*t). Not for the first time, I recommend Fred Block’s book State of Innovation: The U.S. Government’s Role in Technology Development. Government funding is at the root of the vast majority of technological innovations, energy and otherwise.

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I personally wish ARPA-E would drop anything to do with the “clean coal” boondoggle. But others who share my ecological goals, say, James Fallows, probably wish they’d devote more resources to it. Neither I nor Jim is qualified to make those decisions, though, and I damn sure don’t want members of Congress making them. That way lies things like Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) recent report decrying funding for Scientific Projects that Sound Funny to Tom Coburn.

Also, exactly how exactly do tax credit for hybrids “harm the environment”? How do loan guarantees for renewable energy projects “harm the environment”? Neither program is optimal and if there were a critical mass in Congress to genuinely support clean energy options, there are plenty of ways those programs could be reformed or replaced to achieve their goals more effectively. But there isn’t such a critical mass. There’s only a bunch of vultures looking for any way they can to cut the meager support cleantech gets now. Just whacking those programs in the name of budget balancing is a stupid self-inflicted political wound.

And this gets to my problem with the political optics of this. There’s been a lot of stirring on the right lately about energy subsidies, but it’s pretty thin cover for going after the (nascent, tiny) support that’s grown up lately for clean energy. The key thing to remember is that if all explicit energy subsidies were removed, clean energy would overwhelmingly be the loser. To quote myself:

Renewable energy subsidies tend to be extremely visible, since the industry is new and subsidies tend to come in the form of explicit cash grants or tax exemptions. Oil gets some of that too, but the real oil subsidies are woven deep in the fabric of U.S. law, code, and infrastructure. Start, of course, with unpriced externalities, principally CO2 and oil wars. Then of course there’s the U.S. highway system, perhaps the biggest oil subsidy in the country’s history. That’s to say nothing of the ongoing power of the politically entrenched road-building/real-estate complex, which continues to bias land use, transportation, and funding decisions toward gasoline. Hell, the entire modern economy co-evolved with oil. The same situation — implicit subsidies woven into a century of law and infrastructure — obtains for coal. Nukes and natural gas only have about a 50-year head start.

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These buried and implicit subsidies are in no danger. The greatest danger is to the top-line subsidies, the visible ones. Taking those and only those away would be no boon to renewables or any other fledgling industry challenging the energy status quo; it would simply cement current structural imbalances into place. I smell a set-up.

Along the “set up” lines, exactly why do you think the Heartland Institute — sworn enemies of climate sanity and clean energy — signed on to this thing? And why this year? Perhaps because they know that right-wingers are riding high in Congress and the country is gripped by deficit hysteria and the atmosphere is perfect for a sub rosa attack on clean energy. They are far better placed to get what they want than FOE is.

Heartland is not a “think tank.” They are hacks — the hackiest hacks the right has to offer. They are, definitionally, not doing this out of any earnest public policy impulse. So why do you think they’re doing it?


UPDATE: Taxpayers for Common Sense contacted me to emphasize that the report does not call for cutting ARPA-E; that money isn’t included in the total. The intent was only to point out that there are poor programs within it. Fair enough. I still don’t think a report on budget cutting is the right place for picking and choosing research programs on ideological grounds.

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