Trump administration touts innovation, cuts funding for it

Story highlights

  • Trump's proposed 2018 budget would slash $3.1 billion from energy research programs

Washington (CNN)Despite announcing plans to pull out of the Paris climate accord, President Donald Trump's language and that of his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, seem at odds with the actions he proposes taking.

"We will be environmentally friendly," the President reassured.
The next day, Trump's Environmental Protection Agency administrator stood at the podium in the White House press briefing room and touted America's commitment to curbing climate change: "From 2000 to 2014, we reduced our carbon footprint by up -- over 18%. And that's been largely accomplished through innovation and technology, not government mandate. So, when we look at issues like this, we are leading with action and not words."
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    Pruitt described the United States as a leader in clean energy that would continue to lead by helping other countries reduce their own carbon emissions by exporting US technology.
    "Export our innovation, to export our technology to the rest of the world, to demonstrate how we do it better here is, I think, a very important message to send," Pruitt said.
    But despite the language, there's an apparent contradiction when it comes to the administration's actions. Some environmental advocates say while the Trump administration is promising to continue to lead the world in energy innovation, it is at the same time proposing cutting the very federal programs that fund clean energy innovation research intended to combat climate change.
    For instance, Trump's proposed 2018 budget would slash $3.1 billion from energy research programs at the Department of Energy. That's 18% less funding than last year.
    The Energy Department's own website says the agency has played an " important role" in energy innovation. The agency's website also describes its research and development mission for clean energy: "The Department catalyzes the transformative growth of basic applied scientific research, the discovery and development of new clean energy technologies and prioritizes scientific innovation as a cornerstone of US economic prosperity."
    All of which raises the question, if the administration feels innovation is the most effective way to combat climate change, why would so many of these energy innovation research programs be identified for cuts?
    The administration's position is that innovations are more effectively created and promoted by private industry -- not the government. It says the reason for proposing the cuts at the Department of Energy is because "the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy technology research and development."
    Trump's budget also calls for wiping out the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which according to DOE's website, "advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment." In other words, it funds technology that is so new and cutting-edge that it is considered too risky by most investors, but could bring about the "next big thing."
    The Office of Fossil Energy, which invests in innovation aimed at capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants, faces a proposed 54% cut.
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    Trump also wants to eliminate the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program, which gets $37 million to fund technology that addresses air pollution and greenhouse gases.
    Asked about the apparent contradiction between EPA administrator Pruitt's comments Friday and the proposed cuts, an EPA spokesman told CNN in an email: "EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proudly supports President Trump's budget that provides funding to protect our air, water, and land while reducing wasteful spending in our government."
    But former Department of Energy secretary under President Barack Obama, Ernest Moniz, disagrees.
    "The budget proposal for this administration, rather than doubling programs for innovation, this administration proposes halving it. That just dulls our competitive edge."
    Moniz said he feels the President's plans also will harm job creation. "When you combine the President's announcement (Thursday) with his budget proposal, it undercuts the innovation agenda that is actually the real issue in terms of jobs in the United States," he said.
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    A White House spokeswoman said in an email to CNN that "entrepreneurs in the private sector, not government funding, are responsible for successfully advancing and commercializing new technology."
    But environmental activists say research for things like renewable energy is very expensive on the front end and many private sector investors find the prospect too risky.
    One example is refrigerators. The federal government invested money and decades of research trying to figure out how to make household appliances -- like refrigerators -- more energy efficient. Consumers now save millions on energy bills because of that research. Environmental groups point out that the industry didn't initiate this research, it was the federal government that had to push the initiative forward.
    Fast forward to today, and it's precisely that type of government-funded research that now sits on the chopping block.