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Sequester Will Impact Environment and Cleantech, But Not All Are Worried

Mar 13, 2013

Sequestration will hamper environmental cleanup programs as well as reduce renewable energy grants. Credit: Federico Stevanin. The environmental may get dirtier, thanks to sequestration. Credit: Federico Stevanin.

As of March 1, the words "sequester" and "sequestration" suddenly became familiar to the American vocabulary; prior to that the only time most of us had ever heard the words were in connection with a jury trial that lasted for weeks at a time.

But when President Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress could not come to terms on a deal to balance the federal budget and head off $85 billion in automatic, immediate spending cuts, the sequester became all the rage in Washington, D.C., and the 50 states.

Almost no sector of the economy is spared by these draconian reductions, but one of the hardest-hit sectors is the environment.

Between government subsidies for solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, grant money to cutting-edge private companies, and cleanup and rescue efforts for everything from oil spills to fisheries to wildlife preservation, the environmental funding has taken a major hit.

Just a few of the painful outcomes resulting from the ongoing fiscal crisis are as follows:

  • A reduction of treasury grants for renewable energy projects, to the tune of almost 9 percent cutback in funding.
  • The White House estimates that all 50 states will lose  a combined total of $154.5 million in environmental funding. New York stands to take the biggest hit in the losses at $14 million in funds. (Calls to comment for this story to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's press office and the N.Y. State Dept. of Energy Conservation were not returned).
  • The Environmental Protection Agency will be forced to implement employee furloughs, and their ability to finalize new power plant emissions rules will be compromised.
  • There will be layoffs and delays for new standards in the energy efficiency sector.
  • Disaster relief funding from organizations like FEMA and money given to each state's disaster relief teams will be cut.

"What's really the most frustrating about all of the sequester cuts is they hit across the board; there's not really any area of the environment or clean energy that is spared," said Jackie Roberts, the director of sustainable technologies at the Environmental Defense Fund. "From green energy, to the environmental cleanups, to weather, everything is affected."

Funding for storm predicting imagery like the one shown here from NOAA may be a victim of the recent sequester cuts. Funding for storm predicting imagery like the one shown here from NOAA may be a victim of the recent sequester cuts.

Roberts and others I spoke to were quick to bring up specific examples of how the sequester will hurt certain sectors of the environment.

For one, Roberts pointed to N.O.A.A. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), the federal weather tracking system that helps alert communities when severe storms are about to hit their area.

The sequester is expected to trim 8.2 percent of N.O.A.A's funding, which of course could lead to delays and fewer staff to deal with weather calamities. Not that we've had any severe weather problems the last few years (Katrina, Sandy, too many others to name).

"N.O.A.A. has two new satellites that they want to launch, that are the most accurate yet in predicting severe weather," Roberts said. "If storms and droughts come in and we're not as prepared for it as we should be, think about how many millions upon millions of dollars that will cost us, in cleanup and recovery."

Sequestration also hurts clean water monitoring by the EPA, which could lead to major problems with contamination. "Clearly we may not see the effects of something like that for a few months, but there's certainly a higher likelihood of a problem whenever you cut the oversight and examination of clean water," Roberts added.

Some of these environmental and green energy cuts may sound hypothetical and "worst-case" scenario, but many are extremely specific. Take, for example, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site in Washington state. The governor, Jay Inslee, said the sequester cuts could hamper the U.S. government's ability to clean up the site, where six underground tanks were found to be leaking in recent weeks.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates the six tanks were leaking at a rate of less than 3 gallons a day, and could leak about 1,000 gallons annually.

I also wanted to find out how the cuts were affecting companies and university research programs on a smaller basis, so I got back in touch with sources from several of the green energy research and employment sector stories we've done on this site in recent months, and happily, the news isn't all bad.

First, the bad news: Georgia Tech University, which recently received a $3.6 million grant from the Department of Energy for Professor Asegun Henry's high-efficiency solar reactor research, expects to see significant cuts to its research department.

The university said it received $484 million in federal funding for 2012, but has been told to expect a cut of 8.9 percent in defense-focused research, and 5.3 percent in other research, where Dr. Henry's work would fall.

However, a spokesperson at ARPA-E, a major R&D arm of the DOE, said none of the millions in grant money it doled out in 2012 was in danger.

The spokesperson, who spoke only on background and didn't want to be named, explained that ARPA-E grants are paid for on a year-to-year basis but that money for all existing awarded grants had already been allocated.

The spokesperson also said, "At this point, all the work people are doing, all our existing scientists ... they should be able to keep working their projects.  Where the sequester will hurt us going forward in future years, and in our budget this year, is not something we know right now."

Another research lab I wanted to check back in on was NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based in Colorado. NREL, which does cutting edge work in wind, solar and other fields, told me that because they were able to plan for the sequester, the organization "does not anticipate any immediate impact of sequestration to the laboratory."

I also checked in on smaller programs that might see government funding as the make-or-break money that determines whether they can continue. One such program is the highly successful Consortium for Workers Education, which we wrote about last November. The CWE trains adults transitioning out of previous careers, and recent college graduates, for jobs in green industries like wind and solar.

In just three years, the CWE, based in New York City, helped train and educate 400 graduates, placing more than half of them in new green job careers. The CWE receives funding from the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Training Administration to help keep it going, as well as help from the private Big Apple Green Network.

Mike Frey, director of the Big Apple Green Network, said that CWE's recent grants were from the state Dept. of Education, and that there would be no loss of federal money due to the sequester. Talking every day to green jobs businesses and trainees, though, Frey had a measured perspective on the sequester cuts.

"I think in six months we'll have a much better idea how much (the sequester) will affect green jobs," Frey said, "because that's when companies will really have a better handle on what their budgets are going to look like (next year)."