Trump’s Budget and Infrastructure Plans Threaten Environment

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune says that both proposals will create more pollution and exacerbate climate change, serving fossil fuel donors’ interests at the expense of the environment

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor, joining you in Baltimore. The Trump administration has released its long-awaited infrastructure plan and its 2019 budget proposal. Trump’s $4.4 trillion budget proposal calls for increasing military spending and slashing funding to federal agencies, chiefly the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation. The EPA’s 2019 budget would be cut by a whopping 34% from 2017 to 5.4 billion. This would mark an even bigger cut than Trump and Pruitt sought last year.

The NSF’s funding would be cut by about 30%, and the 55-page infrastructure plan would cut environmental reviews and regulations. It does so, the Trump administration says, in the name of efficiency, but critics say it’s a huge cash grab for corporations and a massive grab of public land for fossil fuel companies. What would the environmental impact of all of this be? Well, to talk about that, I’m pleased to be joined by Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Hey Dharna, thanks for having me on.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Let’s talk about the budget proposal first. Last year, the president requested a 34% cut to the EPA’s $8.2 billion budget. Now he’s seeking to cut more than $2.5 billion from it. The EPA has already shrunk so much. It’s already lost so many employees. Talk about what’s being proposed for the EPA and if Congress approves the cut, how they could affect the EPA and the American public.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, first, Congress won’t approve this budget. They didn’t approve the proposed cuts last year, although EPA is a lot smaller as you mentioned. But there is still … There’s not too many things in this country that we’re bipartisan about, but protecting clean air, protecting our water, are two things that most Americans agree on. We don’t expect that Trump’s proposal will actually be turned into a real budget.

But what is being proposed is scary, and it’s a clear statement of the values of this administration. They would rather see a tax scam that would give nearly $1.5 trillion to the wealthiest Americans than they would actually protecting our air, our water, our forests, our parks, and our climate and our communities. What we’re seeing is a concerted attempt, whether it’s through tax policy or budgetary policy or undermining regulations, in which we have Trump and the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, consistently and persistently looking to weaken our protections and provide more giveaways to the fossil fuel industry.

DHARNA NOOR: What about the cuts to the National Science Foundation? There’s a proposed cut of 30% of its budget, what could that mean?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, look. This is just a continuation of the administration’s policies. We have a president who doesn’t understand science, he doesn’t respect science, and he certainly isn’t embracing science as a way to guide his policies and guide his views. And so this budget, sadly, is not coming as much of a surprise. What it would do is it would hemorrhage our ability to understand the world around us and to help guide our economy and guide public policy decisions in a way that are in accord with the natural world around us. What is being proposed is a huge cut to the National Science Foundation. We’re also finding other cuts to different scientific agencies throughout the Federal Government. Once again, it’s just not in agreement with where most Americans are, it’s not what businesses want, and it certainly doesn’t make good public policy.

DHARNA NOOR: While all of these federal agencies would see these huge cuts, Trump is proposing a large increase in military spending. Talk about what kind of environmental impact that could have.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, again, anybody who’s studied the last several wars that we fought in knows that there’s always not just a severe human cost but a severe environmental cost as well. In fact, we’re seeing environmental degradation as a cause of much conflict around the world, whether it’s climate refugees or the lack of available water. Again, we have to find a way in which the Federal Government is developing budgets and policies that reflect the will of our voters but also have a long-term view on what’s needed in the US and around the world.

DHARNA NOOR: I want to talk about the Department of the Interior as well. Of course, the proposed budget would cut funding to the Department of the Interior, but talk about the Department of the Interior also in terms of the infrastructure plan. The infrastructure plan would give the Interior Secretary the authority to approve natural gas pipelines going through national parks. Talk a little bit about what the changes could look like.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. I’ll talk about both the budget and the infrastructure proposal. Both are disastrous for our public lands, both our parks, our forests, and some of the most beautiful and special places that all Americans own, because they’re public lands, and millions of Americans enjoy every year.

In the budget, what we’re seeing is, as you mentioned, both a significant cut in the Department of the Interior’s budget but also an increase in the fees that people would pay to go to many national parks. It would cost $70 to go to Yosemite or Yellowstone or Joshua Tree National Park and many others, a significant increase that would put our public national parks out of reach for many low income Americans, which is anathema to the idea behind these parks to begin with. But what we’re also seeing is an expansion of fossil fuel development on our public lands all across the country, more coal, more oil, more gas, more mining, more destructive activity. They want to kick people out and allow for corporations to come in and liquidate our public lands for private gain.

DHARNA NOOR: In many of those kinds of projects, the 55-page plan proposes cuts to environmental reviews to these projects. It claims that these cuts will make projects more efficient, so what’s your response to that?

MICHAEL BRUNE: I laugh because they’re code words. You know, it’ll make it more efficient, it’ll help to streamline these development projects, it’s nothing of the sort. The National Environmental Policy Act is an act that was signed by President Nixon back in the 70s. It had huge bipartisan support because what it meant is that it would involve infrastructure development that was smart from the start, where you get citizen engagement. You have people who live near a particular bridge or a road or any kind of infrastructure project to help share where it should go, what it should look like. And then we have the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which, again, were bipartisan pieces of legislation designed to make sure that our air and water can be clean for all Americans.

The infrastructure proposal that we saw yesterday would gut those protections. It would gut those safeguards in the name of efficiency. So rather than smart from the start, we’re seeing an infrastructure proposal that doesn’t even take into account climate change or the amount of flooding or wildfires that can take place. So it’s not smart from the start, it’s more like dumb as a rule of thumb. It just doesn’t really make sense for us to be building and developing in a way that doesn’t reflect reality and it doesn’t reflect our commonly held widespread values that support clean air, clean water, healthy families, and healthy communities.

DHARNA NOOR: In the budget proposal, there are also all of these proposed budget cuts to the Department of the Interior and a proposal to actually use energy sales on public lands to help fund infrastructure projects for the DOI. I want to talk about what effect that would have and then also the infrastructure plan’s effect on the Department of the Interior. The infrastructure plan would give the Interior Secretary the authority to, for instance, approve natural gas pipelines going through national parks. Talk a little bit about that.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Okay. Well, two points. One, any kind of energy investment would create jobs. It’s fair to say that a new oil and gas rig or a new coal mine would create jobs. It’s also fair to say that an offshore wind development, or onshore wind turbine project or solar installation, would also create jobs. We can look at what’s happening across the economy.

The Federal Government, in fact, Trump’s own US Bureau of Labor Statistics, says that the number one job and the number three job in the United States right now are in wind in solar. So we know that our economy increasingly is becoming by clean energy. We have more than 50 cities who have agreed to go to 100% clean energy, and we know that there are more jobs right now associated with clean energy than with dirty fuels.

What we need is an infrastructure project that creates jobs, that provides a stimulus for our economy, that helps us to repair our decaying infrastructure, but does it in a way that acknowledges that climate change is real, that acknowledges that renewable power cuts air and water pollution but also create more jobs than with dirty fuels. We should be able to do more than two things, or at least more than one thing, at the same time. In order to do that, we have to factor in the reality that clean energy doesn’t just fight climate change but it also helps to promote an increase in jobs, in fact more jobs than in dirty fuels.

DHARNA NOOR: So if it’s not creating jobs and it’s obviously not making any environmental protections easier, what is the overall agenda here? Why is the Trump administration slashing all of these programs, making all these cuts, deregulating? Is this just to rally the support of his fossil fuel campaign donors?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look. There’s no secret what’s going on here. It’s actually pretty simple. Trump has said that climate change is a hoax. He has filled his cabinet with billionaires and filled his federal government with people who have a much stronger loyalty to the fossil fuel industry than they do to the American people and is taking our country backwards.

We have to find a way to make sure that the economy is powered by reliable energy. We have to make sure that we’re creating widespread prosperity across our economy, and the best way to do that is to continue a transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy. This administration has been very consistent, frankly, in its budgets, in its foreign policy arrangements like pulling out of the Paris Accord, and in what Ryan Zinke is doing at Interior, what Scott Pruitt is doing at EPA, and that they are consistently, day after day and week after week, trying to find a way to undermine the safeguards that protect our air and water to provide giveaways to the oil and gas and coal industries and to try to prevent clean energy from growing.

The good news is that that’s not happening. We’ve actually retired a coal plant, since Trump was elected, every 19 days. We’re seeing a continued transition towards electric vehicles and to solar and wind and energy efficiency in ways that are, again, cutting pollution but also creating more jobs. The resistance to these efforts is strong, it’s diverse, it’s more boisterous than it’s ever been, and will continue to be effective in opposition to what this administration is putting forward.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, keep us posted. Thank you so much for joining us today, Michael.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Will do. Thank Dharna, take care.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.