WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush's proposed budget for 2003 would boost spending on fossil fuel and nuclear energy projects while cutting key environmental protection measures, warn conservation watchdogs.
Bush sent Congress Monday a 2.13 trillion dollar budget proposal that expands military and national security spending while reducing funds for domestic programs. Citing the war in Afghanistan and the recession, Bush argued it would be necessary to run a deficit and curtail domestic spending on health, the environment, and education.
Environmentalists countered that the administration was invoking ''homeland security'' as an excuse to slash programs - including enforcement of existing environmental laws and efforts to protect tropical forests - that it has opposed since it took office.
The budget ''would enrich the administration's energy industry friends, foul our air and water, and do nothing to promote true energy independence,'' said Wesley Warren, a senior fellow at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), a national advocacy group.
Bush's proposed budget, he said, would slash overall spending for environmental and natural resources departments by one billion dollars, or 3.4 percent, from 29.3 billion dollars to 28.3 billion dollars.
Specific cuts include nearly 300 million dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency and more than 500 million from the Department of Transportation's air pollution reduction programs, said Warren.
At first glance, the Bush budget might seem benign because some funding for certain departments or programs remain stable, said Susan Gunn, director of budget and appropriations for the non- governmental Wilderness Society. But, she said, a close examination of the numbers reveals a serious undercutting of environmental spending.
The administration, for example, has proposed that the budget for the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that oversees federal land use and protection, remain the same at 10 billion dollars. The bureau's budget for fossil fuel development, however, would increase 11 percent while cutting basic environmental protection programs for land, water and wildlife, said Gunn.
''Foremost among the budget's ill-advised priorities is its emphasis on irresponsible oil, gas, and coal development at the expense of some of the nation's most wild and pristine lands,'' she added.
The Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC), a Washington-based coalition of 11 environmental groups, said the administration wants to increase funding for nuclear power by 35 percent while it snubs some renewable energy programs.
The budget for the Department of Energy includes a 288 percent, or 34.5 million dollar, increase for research and development of next generation nuclear reactors, said Christopher Sherry, research director for SECC. At the same time, the proposed budget reduces funding for solar energy by two percent, biomass by two percent and geothermal energy by three percent, he noted.
But the budget yields a few positive results, according to conservation groups.
The proposed budget for the Energy Department, for example, does cut funding for oil and gas research and development to 58 million dollars and cuts spending on coal by 3.8 percent to 326 million dollars, according to an analysis by U.S. Public Interest Research Group. And the budget does increase funding for wind energy by 14 percent, or 5.4 million dollars, said Sherry.
However, advocacy groups said that while these increases in wind energy funding are a step in the right direction, the administration continues to emphasize funding for nuclear and fossil fuels.
''What we need is increased support for the emerging clean renewable technologies of the 21st century, not an obsolete energy policy reliant on coal and nuclear power,'' said Sherry.
Environmental advocates have long argued for reduced reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels leads to harmful air pollution and the emission of heat trapping ''greenhouse gases'', which most scientists believe cause global warming.
The budget also seeks to link funding of renewable energy programs to controversial drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Like last year, Bush proposed to spend the federal share of bonus bids received for drilling in the refuge on renewable energy.
''This is like burning the furniture to heat your house,'' said the Wilderness Society's Gunn.
Critics of drilling in the refuge argue that, according to government estimates, opening up the pristine preserve to exploitation would not yield oil for at least seven years and then yield enough for only 140 days. The arctic refuge is home to more than 180 species of birds and numerous mammals including polar bears, caribou, musk ox, wolves, and moose.
With the proposed budget, Bush also backs off a campaign pledge to protect tropical forests, according to NRDC's Warren.
In August 2000, Bush promised to provide a minimum of 100 million dollars per year for the Tropical Forest Conservation Act. Funded through the Treasury Department, this legislation allows developing nations to restructure their debt in exchange for protecting endangered tropical rainforests, a measure known as a ''debt-for-nature swap.''
In the new federal budget, Bush requested only 50 million dollars for the program, up from five million in 2002.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Press Service