Trump Dumps Climate Science and Innovation in 2018 Budget Blueprint

NASA’s telescope on DSCOVR snapped a solar eclipse over South America in February

Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the Internet in 1999, but he did champion a NASA mission that installed a deep space webcam pointed at Earth in 2015. And yesterday President Trump put a bullseye on that mission. Or, rather, on part of it. Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint asks Congress to defund the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Its sensors tracking magnetic storms emanating from the Sun would keep doing their jobs.

Selectively deep-sixing well-functioning instruments on a satellite 1.5 million kilometers from Earth is one of the stranger entries in President Trump’s first pass at a budget request. But it fits a pattern: Throughout the document programs aimed at comprehending or addressing climate change take deep cuts, even where there is no obvious fiscal justification.

“The budget targets almost anything that is related to climate,” observes David M. Hart, who directs the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C.

Asked about climate change cuts at a press briefing yesterday, Trump Administration budget director Mick Mulvaney stated categorically: “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” Whether the proposals come to pass, say Hart and other experts, will depend on Congress, and on how much political capital Trump and his administration gain or lose fighting on other issues such as immigration and health care in the months ahead.

Trump’s budget officials swung hardest at the Environmental Protection Agency, verifying earlier leaks that he would ask for a 31 percent slash in funding from its anticipated budget for fiscal 2017 (which ends 1 October). Many programs would lose ground under the proposed $2.6 billion reduction. Those targeted for elimination include the Clean Power Plan, which regulates CO2 emissions from power plants, EPA’s climate change research and partnership programs, and the Energy Star product labelling program—“the most successful voluntary energy efficiency movement in history,” according to its website.

Cuts proposed for the Department of Energy, meanwhile, are deeper than expected and disproportionately hit programs designed to carry energy innovations across the so-called valley of death between basic research and commercialization. Trump’s blueprint would nearly eliminate the department’s applied science offices with a $2 billion reduction, andit zeroes out its tech incubator, Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E had $291 million for fiscal 2016.

The Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) warned in a statement yesterday that these and other proposed cuts to Federal research and development would, if enacted, “signal the end of the American century as a global innovation leader.”

George Mason University’s Hart, who is also a senior fellow with the foundation, sees an ideological take on the innovation process driving Trump’s cuts. Hart has documented close alignment between the president’s proposals and a budget plan issued by the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, a conservative Washington think tank, argues for a sharp division between government-funded lab research and proprietary corporate-funded product development.

“A more realistic view is that you have a continuum of projects. There’s a broad middle where the benefits are shared and thus the investment should be shared,” says Hart. Bridging that middle ground is critical in today’s power sector, he argues, because deregulation has dried up the cash that once fuelled its cooperative R&D body. “The Electric Power Research Institute still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self,” says Hart.

Venture capital attracted by ARPA-E-backed energy technologies, meanwhile, shows that DOE’s efforts appear to be paying off.

NASA looks like a budget survivor at first glance—Trump’s blueprint would shave just 1 percent off the agency’s $19 billion 2016 top line and only 5 percent off of its $1.9 billion Earth sciences budget. “That is much less than the Earth science community feared,” says Marcia Smith, president of Arlington, Va.-based consultancy Space and Technology Policy Group and editor of

Nevertheless, some of the Earth science cuts are potentially pernicious, and all target efforts to understand climate. In addition to 2018 spending cuts, three planned NASA Earth science missions would be scrubbed in addition to the blinding of DSCOVR’s Earth-facing sensors.

In three of the four cases, Trump would forego real benefits to gain minimal budgetary relief. For example, Smith figures NASA might save about $1 million by downgrading DSCOVR. Yet it measures Earth’s albedo, which is a “critical parameter for climate” according to Harvard University atmospheric chemist Steven Wofsy. Its measurements incorporate the scattering of sunlight by clouds and aerosols, which is “a tricky thing to calculate” says Wofsy.

Smith adds that, in her personal opinion, Gore was right about DSCOVR’s unique, full-disc image of the Earth (and the Moon orbiting it): “It is useful to remind people just how fragile the Earth is.” Given the “tiny amount of money” at stake, Smith says that cut “has to count as a political issue, not a money issue.”

Another targeted mission, a follow-on to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) that launched in 2014, awaits a 2018 launch. It was assembled from earlier missions’ spare parts and can be cheaply launched since it is destined for the International Space Station.


NASA illustration of its satellite-calibrating CLARREO Pathfinder mission

Whereas the existing OCO-2 scans CO2 emissions across the globe every 16 days, OCO-3 is promises high-precision measurement of regional carbon sources and sinks. One obvious application, he says, is fact-checking greenhouse gas reports. “It could really be powerful … to assess the emissions in China or in India where you can’t trust the numbers,” says Wofsy.

Then there is the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission, whose first iteration is, like OCO-3, to be bolted on to the ISS. CLARREO Pathfinder packs a finely calibrated spectrometer designed to cross-calibrate optical sensors on the entire fleet of U.S. and international Earth observing satellites, thus improving their accuracy 5-10 fold. “It would make sure that what they’re saying about climate is correct,” says University of Colorado senior scientist Michael King, who chairs the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space.

King says better satellite data should, in turn, boost confidence in climate models, whose findings have been questioned by President Trump and top Administration officials, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “There are uncertainties in climate models. Improving their accuracy should be in everybody’s best interest,” says King.

Wofsy also worries about unspecified reductions in Earth science research grants, which he calls the “seed corn” for future satellites.

Whether any of these attacks on climate science and action come to pass is ultimately up to Congress, and the reaction yesterday was weak even among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Smith notes that Rodney Felinghuysen, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, responded with the dry reminder that Congress holds “the power of the purse.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, called Trump’s budget “dead on arrival” over its proposed deep cuts to the State Department. And Democrats also issued blistering rejections.

Bill Foster, a physicist representing metropolitan Chicago, said in a statement: “It is hard to overstate how much damage this budget will do to our ability to remain at the forefront of innovation and problem solving.”

How much of the blueprint survives Congress is linked to how the Trump Administration’s credibility and popularity evolves in the months ahead, according to Hart and other budget watchers. “It may depend on how much clout the administration really has, [and] whether they’re deemed to be worth listening to.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

The Natural Gas Accounting Gap

Last month the U.S. EPA admitted it was way off in its estimate of how much methane producers leak into the atmosphere in the process of wresting natural gas from the ground and piping it across the continent. It’s a big deal since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and likely responsible for a substantial fraction of the climate change we’re already experiencing. And it’s been a long time coming. For many years now methane measurements by airplanes and satellites have strongly suggested that methane emissions from the oil and gas patch could be double what EPA figures captured.

Today the online earth observation pub Earthzine has my take on an unusual research project that helped convince EPA — and the industry — to change their tune on methane emissions. Take me to the article…

NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train. Continue reading

Two REAL Carbon-Capturing Coal Power Plants

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground.

You can read about how they will do it in my latest piece for Technology Review. One point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

In Canada, however, expectations are higher according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”

Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading

Satellites and Simulations Track Missing Methane

In the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum:

Methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, herding livestock, and other human activities in the United States are likely 25 to 75 percent higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently recognizes, according to ameta-analysis of methane emissions research published recently in Science. While experts in remote sensing debate the merits of this and other recent challenges to the EPA’s numbers, definitive answers are already on order via a high-precision Earth observation satellite to be launched next year.

The intensifying methane emissions debate has profound implications for climate and energy policy. Natural gas consumption is rising, and methane’s global warming impact is more than 30 times as much as that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule, and second only to carbon dioxide’s in today’s net climate impact …

click to read on

Rendering Greenhouse Gases Visible

Natural gas has no odor, but you can smell a leak thanks to the addition of an odorific mercaptam compound. Do carbon dioxide and other similarly odorless greenhouse gases (GHGs) require some analogous device to make their presence known and thus prompt evasive action? Yes, and for these ubiquitous gases, it will be a visual cue indicating the source and quantity of GHGs Continue reading