The Stimulus Goes Green

The $789 billion recovery package wasn’t all enviros hoped for. In some cases, it was more.

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The stimulus package about to be passed by Congress is one of the biggest spending bills in US history, and environmentalists are crowing that they got a decent share. Roughly $60 billion of the $789 billion package will be devoted to spending on clean energy, environmental projects, and scientific research. “Overall, this will be by far the biggest investment in new green technologies that we’ve ever seen from the federal government,” says Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters. “And that’s good for our economy and for our environment.”

Details of the conference package released on Thursday show that spending on green causes did not decrease significantly in the process of creating a compromise bill. “I thought we fared pretty well,” says Marchant Wentworth, a legislative representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Is it true that these are monster funding increases for everything green that we believe in? Yes it is.”

The conference bill’s near-final numbers contain $11 billion for the creation of a smart energy grid; $8.4 billion for public transit; $6.3 billion for state and local energy efficiency grants; $6 billion for the cleanup of contaminated Department of Defense sites; $4.5 billion to green federal buildings; and $1.2 billion for the EPA’s cleanup programs. Loan guarantees for nuclear and so-called clean coal technology development—included in the Senate bill—were cut. Tax credit programs, incentivizing research and investment in clean renewable energy, will add further to the bill’s green tally.

“This is unbelievable,” says Josh Dorner, a spokesman for Sierra Club. “This is an unprecedented investment in building a clean energy economy. The Clinton Global Initiative, about a year or so ago, their big challenge was to get spending on energy efficiency to reach $1.5 billion, total, in all of America. And this bill, just on federal buildings, has $4.5 billion. It’s just kind of sinking in that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and Congress and President Obama really stepped up to the plate.”

Some green measures were cut in the process of hammering out the bill’s two compromises: the first to secure the three Republican votes needed to break a Senate filibuster, and the second to bring the House and Senate bills into harmony. Funds slated for adding hybrids to the federal fleet of cars and trucks were halved from the initial House total of $600 million. Weatherization assistance—intended to make homes more energy efficient—started at $6.2 billion in the House, dropped to $2.9 billion in the Senate, and eventually settled at $5 billion. The $400 million the House allocated to help states and localities build energy efficient buses was cut to $300 million. “We’re not impressed overall,” says Kert Davies, the research director for Greenpeace. “It seems in the prioritization of things, environmental matters got the short end of the stick.”

But Davies acknowledges that the stimulus is a way to “start the green economy and create green jobs.” He also sees the comprehensive climate change bill that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has promised to push through his committee by the end of May as another opportunity to get the country on the right track environmentally. “I don’t think it’s the last bite at the apple.”

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