U.S. Geological Survey

Taking inventory. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney calls for developing a “comprehensive” new inventory of U.S. energy resources. Above, mining engineer J. Paul Storrs of the U.S. Geological Survey examines a coal seam in Colorado in 1960.

Basic Research Burns Bright in Romney Energy Plan

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

If U.S. voters choose him in November, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would “redirect” federal spending on energy research toward more basic science, he promises in an energy policy blueprint released today. The 14-page plan also endorses expanding the production and use of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, and launching a new "comprehensive survey" of carbon-based energy resources in the United States.

"Government has a role to play in innovation in the energy industry," begins a three-paragraph section devoted to research and development. "History shows that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology." But the federal government “should not be in the business of steering investment toward particular politically favored approaches,” it says, singling out government support for wind and solar power companies as examples of wasting public dollars.

Instead of spending on "loan guarantees, cash grants, and tax incentives for projects that might have gone forward anyway," Romney promises to "redirect clean energy spending towards basic research. Government funding should be focused on research and development of new energy technologies and on initial demonstration projects that establish the feasibility of discoveries."

In particular, Romney says that "the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model—ensuring long-term, non-political sources of funding for a wide variety of competing, early-stage technologies—holds the most potential for achieving significant advances in the energy sector. Investment should be channeled through programs, such as 'ARPA-E,' that seek to replicate DARPA’s success in energy-related fields."

ARPA-E is the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds high-risk research projects. Authorized but never funded during the George W. Bush presidency, it was embraced by newly elected President Barack Obama and launched in 2009 with money from the massive federal stimulus package. Since then, it has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.

The Romney plan also notes that "the United States is blessed with a cornucopia of carbon-based energy resources," but that "we do not even know the extent of our blessings." That's because "surveys and inventories of resource deposits are decades out of date—when they have even been done at all." To close that gap, Romney promises to “conduct a comprehensive survey of our untapped resources so that policymakers and developers have a full picture from which to work."

In addition to laying out Romney’s vision on energy, the document also attacks the Obama Administration for backing proposals to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, with “blithe disregard for the economic impact of his policies.”

Such views aren’t popular with many environmental groups and Democrats. The League of Conservation Voters, which works to elect “green” lawmakers, notes the plan included more than 150 mentions of oil, but just 14 references to solar power and 10 to wind power. And it ignores the "climate disruption" associated with burning fossil fuels, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune says in a statement. The plan is "disappointing and shortsighted," says Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Democrat-controlled Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in his statement, and it "returns to the Republican Party's only big energy idea: more drilling."

In contrast, Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA), the chair of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, says in a statement that a the plan presented "a comprehensive vision … Romney understands robust, all-of-the-above energy production will lead to a new job creation, stronger American manufacturing and less dependence on unstable foreign countries for energy."

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