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Trump’s Silver Lining: Make Environmental Infrastructure Great Again?

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 02 January 2017

There are many reasons to be dismayed about the outlook for environmental policy under the Trump administration. His potential appointees to the Environmental Protection Agency, and Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Energy not exactly environmental advocates. These political appointees will lead efforts to roll back many of the environmental initiatives of the Obama administration, although they may encounter resistance from career civil servants in management positions. Trump does not recognize the validity of climate science, or even “science” writ large, despite substantial research about the economic costs resulting from human damage to the environment. Overall, the Trump administration offers a gloomy forecast that will once again force the environmental community to play political defense.

However, does Trump’s infrastructure plan offer a silver lining for environmental policy within this new political reality? The goal of the plan is to finance $100 trillion in infrastructure investments, mostly through tax breaks and regulatory relief to private companies. There are massive needs for spending on environmental infrastructure. According to the latest EPA survey, drinking water systems nationwide need at least $384 billion dollars of investment to reduce the risks of public health disasters like what happened with lead pipes in Flint, Michigan. The National Park system faces a $11.39 billion shortfall to maintain infrastructure for one of America’s greatest assets. In its 2009 report to Congress, the National Committee on Levee Safety recommended establishing a levee rehabilitation, improvement, and flood risk mitigation fund with annual costs of $923 million in the first five years and $1.53 million going forward. There are additional costs for both “grey” and “green” infrastructure in coastal regions that are already experiencing increased rates of flooding during high tides, and extreme events like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. Even these limited examples of environmental infrastructure needs are approaching the target funding amount of Trump’s infrastructure plan.

Finding this silver lining requires overcoming two major challenges. First, investment in environmental infrastructure must be framed to reflect Trump’s economic development goals. This should be a fairly easy case to make—the integrity of basic environmental infrastructure is a key indicator of global economic development. Countries without sufficient drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure experience water-borne diseases that pose major risks to human health and economic productivity. Sufficient flood management infrastructure prevents economic losses from severe storms and other flooding events. For example, the levee safety committee reports that the Army Corp of Engineers estimates a return of $6.48 in avoided losses for every dollar invested in flood infrastructure. Framing environmental infrastructure in these terms does not even require mentioning increasing adaptive capacity to climate change, or how innovative strategies like “green infrastructure” and wetland restoration provide additional benefits for ecosystems.

Second, Trump’s strategy of tax breaks is not consistent with the traditional approach to environmental infrastructure spending by government. Most people do not realize that the vast majority of environmental policy is actually spending money on projects, rather than the costs of regulation.  For example, the 2016 Water Resources Development Act that funds Army Corps of Engineers and other water projects is estimated to cost $6.3 billion from 2017-2026. Infrastructure bills like the WRDA often enjoy overwhelming bi-partisan support due to the particularized, local economic benefits delivered to states and Congressional districts. Even with tax incentives, private companies will still only invest in projects that provide direct economic profits and will underinvest in projects with public economic and environmental benefits. Trump will have to adjust his infrastructure plan to align with the political realities of Congress, and avoid the potential traps posed by a tax incentive strategy.

Every great country depends on environmental infrastructure to provide basic human needs and the basis for economic development. Although many in the environmental community will find it hard to swallow, and it is not without political risks, reframing environmental infrastructure is a possible shelter in the political storm of the next four years.