The Green Scissors campaign has brought together some strange bedfellows in the development of its recent report, Green Scissors: Cutting Wasteful and Environmentally Harmful Spending 2011. The report lists as its sponsors four organizations of diverse political persuasions and gives credit to authors from all four as well:
- The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank
- Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy organization
- Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Federal budget watchdog group
- Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group started by Ralph Nader but no long associated with him
This team of rivals has been able to reach a consensus around a central idea: That government provides massive funding to programs that damage the environment — and that cutting that funding will help the U.S. reduce its $1.65 trillion deficit and $14.6 trillion debt.
The report identifies over $380 billion (2012-2016) in government subsidies “that are damaging to the environment and harming taxpayers,” according to the report.
The Green Scissors project is an interesting demonstration of synergies that can result from a little creative thinking. But some of the parties are miles apart ideologically.
The Heartland Institute says that its mission is “to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” Included among those solutions are “market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.”
Heartland’s programs include a Center on Climate and Environmental Policy that “produces an ambitious program of research and educational projects in defense of free-market environmentalism.” The center promotes market-based rather than government-based environmental solutions, stating that “The nation’s air and water quality, the safety of its food, and the health and productivity of its forests all depend on bringing the best-available science and economic research to bear on protecting the environment.”
Heartland has taken a much-publicized “skeptical” stance on man-made global warming, even sponsoring a yearly International Conference on Climate Change highlighting the views of dissenting researchers. The conference has been derided as a “Denial-a-Palooza” by environmental advocates.
One could see how Heartland and Taxpayers for Common Sense might be able to make common cause around reducing subsidies and government waste. But what would motivate progressive groups like Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen to start singing Kumbaya with the Heartland Institute?
Friends of the Earth, the originators of Green Scissors, is a U.S. organization that advocates for protection of food sources and ecosystems and promotes clean energy. The organization describes its president, Erich Pica, as “a leading expert on how federal tax dollars subsidize pollution.” The group started Green Scissors in 1994, and credits the program with helping “cut more than $26 billion in environmental wasteful programs from the federal budget.”
When it comes to global warming, the organization states frankly that it is “working for aggressive legislation in the United States that quickly reduces — and eventually ends — our country’s emissions of heat-trapping gasses” and is working on efforts “to bring the international community together behind a strong global climate agreement, without which this problem cannot be solved.”
Similarly, Public Citizen says it promotes “strong regulation of energy markets,” educates the public on the dangers of continued reliance on dirty energy sources,” helps “solve climate change by promoting localized clean energy alternatives,” and holds “large energy corporations accountable by exposing wrongdoing.”
In spite of the four partners’ very different perspectives on important environmental issues, the Green Scissors report says that:
While all four groups have different missions, histories, goals and ideas about the role of government, we all agree that we can begin to overcome our nation’s budgetary and environmental woes by tackling spending that is not only wasteful, but environmentally harmful.
Two of the report’s authors, Eli Lehrer of Heartland and Benjamin Schreiber of Friends of the Earth, appeared together on C-SPAN Sept. 21, 2011, to discuss the Green Scissors collaboration.
During the program, Schreiber emphasized that many government programs waste money and are bad for the environment. He said that “This is really the low-hanging fruit, where a group like the Heartland Institute and a group like Friends of the Earth can come to agreement, and if we can come to agreement then these things just make sense.”
Describing the four partners who worked together on Green Scissors, Lehrer says, “It’s about as diverse and broad a coalition as you can get.” He acknowledges that Heartland and Friends would disagree about congressional initiatives to cut environmental regulations. But when it comes to eliminating subsidies, he says, “On these things, on these spending priorities, we are in 100 percent agreement.”
What to Cut? So Much to Choose From!
In identifying potential subsidies to eliminate, Green Scissors targets programs in energy, agriculture, transportation, and land and water.
In the energy area, the group spotlights subsidies for fossil fuel, nuclear power, ethanol and other selected alternative energy sources, carbon capture and sequestration, “clean” and liquid coal fuels, and natural gas. Surprisingly for some observers, Green Scissors singles out the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an R&D agency that investigates “transformational energy research.” Cutting subsidies for selected fossil fuels could save $61.3 billion for the period 2012-2016, nuclear $49.6 billion, and alternative energy $95.8 billion, says the report. These savings include loan guarantees for nuclear and alternative energy.
According to the report, subsidies for commodity crops such as corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans “end up as windfall profits for the wealthiest and largest agro-corporations, crowd out funding for agriculture-related conservation programs and do little for rural development or the struggling family farm.” The Federal government could save over $56 billion by cutting these kinds of subsidies, along with crop insurance and other provisions. (Photo: Corn harvested for ethanol. Credit: KOMUnews, CC BY 2.0.)
While acknowledging that transportation programs are strategically important, the group believes it is essential to “do the most with every transportation dollar,” and to do that “means some programs and projects need to be eliminated while others should be reduced in scope.” The report identifies $106.5 billion in potential transportation cuts for the 2012 to 2016 period.
Important savings identified in the land and water category have to do with commercial uses of public land. Often, says the report, industries use such lands for grazing, mining, drilling, and timber harvesting, yet they “do not pay for the resources they remove or the infrastructure they need for resource extraction. At the same time, they negatively impact water, air, and ecosystems.”
Criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers, the group says that agency “has been a lever pulled by lawmakers to bring money to their home districts for nearly two centuries.” Yet many of the Corps’ projects “serve little to no national interest, are not economically justified, have serious negative environmental impacts and are based more on political power than national priority.”
Green Scissors identifies potential cuts for land and water subsidies of $15.3 billion.
Green Scissors “Misguided”?
Matthew Stepp of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and Teryn Norris of Americans for Energy Leadership call Green Scissors 2011 “misguided.” About the partnership between progressive organizations and the Heartland Institute, they write,
These types of collaborations are rare, and the report marked a unique opportunity for traditionally opposed organizations to take a leadership role and break the gridlock on budget, energy, climate, and environmental policy. Unfortunately, the report not only fails to realize this opportunity, but makes fundamentally misguided choices that would be counterproductive to reducing the budget deficit and could potentially exacerbate America’s climate and energy challenges.
Stepp and Norris acknowledge that Green Scissors “correctly identifies some unproductive spending that should indeed be eliminated,” such as corn ethanol subsidies. They complain, though, that the report makes “several factually incorrect statements, misguided recommendations, and errors of omission” and that its recommendations “are often supported by ideologically-driven economic myths and backed by shallow analysis and evaluative criteria.”
Stepp and Norris criticize the proposal in its focus solely on spending cuts without recognizing the value of public investment for stimulating innovation in energy and sustainability. They think the recommendation to cut ARPA-E is poorly informed, arguing that
…if the authors made any serious attempt to understand ARPA-E, they would find that it targets high-risk, high-value, pre-commercial technologies that the private sector is largely unwilling to support on its own.
Instead of simply funding the most basic, blue-sky research that may never create commercially applicable technology, ARPA-E is funding projects that can yield massive economy-wide returns on investment, support U.S. economic competitiveness and export-oriented industries, and drive high-skilled job creation.