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Green Scissors 2011 and ARPA-E

Posted Aug. 25, 2011 / Posted by: Ben Schreiber

The recently released Green Scissors 2011 report identifies environmentally beneficial spending cuts that could save taxpayers more than $380 billion. Recommended cuts range from giveaways to big oil companies to road projects to environmentally destructive Army Corps of Engineers projects.

One program highlighted in the report is the little-known Advanced Research Programs Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which is part of the Department of Energy. Because this has received some attention since the report’s publication yesterday (see, for example Stephen Lacey’s post at Climate Progress, or Michael Grunwald’s praise for ARPA-E at Time’s Swampland blog), I want to explain why Friends of the Earth supports ARPA-E’s inclusion in this year’s (and last year’s) report.

Although ARPA-E “supports some positive efforts,” (a point we make in the report), it also channels significant funding to coal carbon capture and sequestration projects. Coal is inherently dirty -- even if all climate pollution from coal burning were eliminated, coal production and waste would still cause unacceptable adverse health and environmental impacts. With cleaner alternatives available, any coal subsidy is a dirty one, and our energy investments should be focused elsewhere.

ARPA-E also funds risky projects that use nanotechnology and extreme genetic engineering, the health and environmental impacts of which have yet to be adequately studied, let alone regulated. (In fact, in a troubling move, the Department of Energy is seeking exemptions from the National Environmental Policy Act for all of its research projects.) ARPA-E also funds biomass projects that will likely lead to increased climate pollution and forest destruction.

Because ARPA-E does fund some environmentally beneficial projects, we chose not to include the program’s budget in the total dollar amount we identified for cuts in the report. As we explained in a footnote: “Since not all of this spending funds environmentally harmful projects, this program is excluded from the overall total for this chart.” This is the same way that ARPA-E was treated in Green Scissors 2010, and we believe that this is the right way to draw attention to a program that has serious problems but is not all bad.

Friends of the Earth believes it is important to develop innovative clean and safe energy solutions. But the government should only invest in solutions that are safe and beneficial for the public and the environment. 

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