An Environmental Response to the Budget Debate (Part 1): Sharpening the Green Scissors

09/06/2011 05:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

The budget debate in Washington, D.C. threatens to be disastrous for programs that protect our air and water, preserve our natural places and reduce our global warming emissions. The terms of this debate place environmental organizations and activists in unfamiliar territory. Tax reform, discretionary spending caps, offset spending cuts, reconciliation, rescissions, balanced budget amendments to the Constitution and the "super committee" are not areas where the environmental community has typically been engaged. In fact, unless funding for agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service are at risk, or contrived budget gimmicks are used to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling (like we saw in the past), the environmental community is often blissfully disengaged from broader budget debates. This needs to change.

The budget agreement that increased the debt ceiling, as well as the budget framework being negotiated in the newly created congressional super committee, threatens the very financial foundation that many of our social, environmental, investment and regulatory programs rest upon. The terrible outcome of the debt ceiling debate should serve as a wake-up call for the environmental community. In addition to the $900 billion in cuts already made to the long-term budget, the congressional super committee is now tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in budget savings or revenue. The environmental community must fully engage in the debate over cutting spending from the tax code and the budget, as well as promoting new revenue sources (more to come in part 2 of this series). If we do not, a multi-decade budget framework could be set in place that essentially bankrupts our capacity to rigorously fight climate change, invest in the future of the country and leave a stronger environmental legacy for our children.

Last week, Friends of the Earth and partners took another step into the federal budget debate with the release of our latest Green Scissors report. Green Scissors 2011 identifies 109 environmentally harmful spending programs and tax breaks that, if eliminated or reformed, could save up to $380 billion over five years. The report tells an extremely important narrative: We can reduce environmentally harmful activities while saving billions of federal dollars.

More important than the savings outlined in the report is the diverse coalition that the report brings together. We are partnering with Taxpayers for Common Sense, Public Citizen and The Heartland Institute. Our institutions have radically different perspectives on a range of topics, from the role of government to the need to act decisively on global warming. With this report, we are embracing the often said mantra: "There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests." Some of our friends have been critical of Friends of the Earth's partnership with the climate-denying Heartland Institute, but if groups as diverse as ours can find common ground with the Green Scissors 2011 report, so too can policymakers, even in this ultra-polarized political climate.


The Green Scissors 2011 report contains the most extensive collection of potential savings since its first publication in 1994. The $380 billion in potential savings represents areas of agreement where there are real or potential negative environmental impacts and fiscal waste. There are 109 recommendations in the report, and we expect there will be debate, disagreement and controversy over the programs and tax breaks we highlight. We invite this debate. We should be vigorously discussing the merits of tax breaks or spending programs in order to ensure that we are holding our government to the highest standards. There are likely more savings available in unexplored areas of the budget and tax code.

Among the choicest cuts from Green Scissors are more than $10 billion a year in oil and gas industry subsidies. President Obama has proposed eliminating many of these subsidies, yet Congress has thus far refused to do so. The American public wants these giveaways ended. It is time for members of Congress to stop listening to special interest lobbyists and start listening to voters.

Another choice cut is the 45-cents-per-gallon tax subsidy that goes to firms that blend dirty corn ethanol into gasoline, something they are already required to do by law. Corn ethanol uses massive amounts of fertilizer and water, and results in soil erosion. We should not be rewarding this damaging energy source. This gift from Congress to the dirty corn ethanol industry must end when it is slated to expire at the end of the year.

There is already substantial discussion about the oil and gas tax breaks and ethanol subsidies. I hope that the savings in this report that come from the agricultural subsidies, transportation infrastructure and land and water will get just as much scrutiny and debate.

But coming up with the list of environmentally harmful cuts is the easy part; eliminating them will be harder. Every subsidy written into law has a powerful special interest behind it that has invested time and money into getting that handout. Corporations will use their money and their lobbyists to make sure that their interests are protected. Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Public Citizen and The Heartland Institute are committed to using our strong political ties in our respective conservative and progressive communities to ensure that these potential cuts are a part of the broad political discourse.

In usual times, corporations' influence would be enough to keep the status quo intact. But the existence of the congressional super committee - and the "trigger" that will force across-the-board cuts if the committee doesn't come to agreement about how to reduce the deficit - mean that this is no ordinary time. We have what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end polluter giveaways.

It's time to sharpen the Green Scissors and beginning trimming away programs and tax breaks that hurt the environment and waste taxpayer dollars. The next step: raising revenue to defend our ability to save vital programs that protect people and the environment.