US President Donald Trump’s proposed budget measures for 2018 would spell disaster for built environment sustainability, massacring environment, energy efficiency and affordable housing programs in his country, with potential implications for copycat governments elsewhere.

Using a “bloated federal bureaucracy” as a starting point, and a focus on national security and safety, the budget blueprint recommends the gutting of a range of departments, including health, education, transport, housing and energy, while increasing funding to defence, veterans affairs and homeland security.

“These cuts are sensible and rational,” the president said in his budget message.

“Every agency and department will be driven to achieve greater efficiency and to eliminate wasteful spending in carrying out their honourable service to the American people.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in reply said the budget threw billions of dollars at defence “while ransacking America’s investment in jobs, education and innovation, clean energy and lifesaving medical research”.

For the built environment, the budget measures, which will need to secure support from Congress, are nothing less than devastating. Cuts include programs that improve energy efficiency for homes, provide affordable housing and research the latest technology for buildings.

Department of Energy

The 2018 budget blueprint calls for a $1.7 billion cut in the Department of Energy budget, a cut of 5.6 per cent.

One major program Trump is looking to cut entirely is the Weatherization Assistance Program, a grant program that helps improves the energy efficiency of low-income homes through various retrofit activities.

In 2015 a report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory found the program provided benefits in energy, health and safety that were four times greater than the program’s cost – and supported 28,000 jobs.

The US Alliance to Save Energy said cutting the program was the definition of “penny-wise, pound foolish”.

“Eliminating the Weatherization Assistance Program will only hurt struggling families who are trying to reduce their energy bills,” alliance president Kateri Callahan said.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, similar to our CSIRO, is another program on the chopping block.

ARPA-E – signed into law by former President George W Bush – researches emerging technologies that are at too early a stage to be funded by the private sector, and which would have benefit to economic security, national security and environmental wellbeing.

Nonetheless the budget blueprint recommends getting rid of it because “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialise innovative technologies”.

For the built environment the program has supported innovative research into areas such as energy efficient building ventilation, transparent polymers for window insulation, virtual building energy audits, electrochromic windows, sound wave refrigerants and radiative coolers for rooftops and cars.

“ARPA-E was a remarkable bipartisan achievement that we accomplished during the Bush administration and the Obama administration, working in a bipartisan way,” Ms Pelosi said.

“That’s really a very important part of not only our economy, not only our atmosphere, but also our international competitiveness.”

EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency is set for the biggest cut, if Trump’s proposed measures are approved. Staff would be slashed by 3200 (close to 20 per cent of staff), with the budget reduced by 31 per cent, or $2.6 billion, to $5.7 billion.

Funding cuts include the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts.

In some dystopian doublespeak, the EPA air program – which sets limits on certain pollutants – is being “reoriented” so it will now “protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy”.

Over 50 EPA programs are set to be cut, amongst them Energy Star, the labelling program for energy efficient appliances.

“Energy Star is just a remarkable success story – one of the most successful public-private partnerships in history,” Ms Callahan said. “This is a federal program that costs $50 million to administer and is delivering annual savings of more than $34 billion to consumers in reduced energy costs.”

Energy Star estimates that since its inception in 1992 it has saved consumers $430 billion while avoiding 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development

While the budget blueprint notes that the department “promotes decent, safe and affordable housing for Americans and provides access to homeownership opportunities”, it is nonetheless being recommended for a budget cut of 13.2 per cent, or $6.2 billion, to $40.7 billion.

The blueprint recommends cutting the Community Development Block Grant program, which has been providing affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and infrastructure development since 1974.

It said the project was “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results”.

Stephen Glaude, chief executive of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, said the program was the “lifeblood” of many cities.

“It’s considered one of the most flexible federal programs in that it allows local communities to determine their greatest needs,” he said.

He said it was “alarming” that the program was slated for elimination without stakeholders being consulted.

Other proposed cuts include:

  • the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which assists in the production and preservation of affordable housing for low and moderate-income families and individuals
  • Choice Neighborhoods, which supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighbourhoods
  • the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program, which develops housing for low-income residents who would not have the opportunity for homeownership, using “sweat equity” of the final homeowners to lower purchase costs
  • Section 4 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing, which help to develop the capacity and ability of community development corporations and community housing development organisations to carry out community development and affordable housing activities that benefit low income families

Department of Transportation

Support for rail could be on the way out too, with the budget blueprint flagging a cut to funding for rail operator Amtrak’s long distance train services, which it said were inefficient. Amtrak has said this would cut services in 23 of the 46 states the system now operates in.

A grants program, the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program (New Starts), will also close to new entrants. This is the primary grant program for funding major transit capital investments, including heavy rail, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars and bus rapid transit.

Organisations such as the US Alliance to Save Energy and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy have vowed to fight the proposals, which require Congress’s support.

“Wasting energy and killing jobs is not the change Americans were seeking in the last election,” ACEEE executive director Steve Nadel said.

“We hope Congress will continue to help Americans save money and will reject cuts that would harm the economy, the environment and their pocketbooks.”