House Spending Panel Votes to Gut Clean-Energy Research

19 June 2013 2:00 pm

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives made manifest yesterday how much they dislike President Barack Obama's clean-energy agenda as a House spending panel voted for massive cuts in clean-energy research.

The Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies, a part of the House Appropriations Committee, passed its markup of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins on 1 October. In its version of the budget, the subcommittee would slash spending on the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) from the current level of $252 million to just $50 million, an 80% cut. Kick-started in, ARPA-E aims to quickly develop the most promising results from basic research to a point at which private industry can take them over. The Obama administration had requested a boost for ARPA-E to $379 million. The subcommittee would also chop back funding for DOE's work on renewable energy by 50% to $983 million, according to a subcommittee press release.

Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the subcommittee, says that such cuts are necessitated by efforts to cut overall federal spending. Leaders of the Republican controlled House put a $30.4 billion spending cap on the energy and water spending bill, which funds DOE and the Army Corps of Engineers. That number is $2.9 billion below this year's spending level and more than $4 billion below the Obama administration's requested level. "The cuts we were forced to make to the applied energy research and development sector will shift work of this type to the private sector," Frelinghuysen said during a hearing on the bill. Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), the ranking member of the subcommittee, noted that "the bill would effectively end" ARPA-E.

Although ARPA-E has won bipartisan backing—including plaudits from the campaign of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—many House Republicans have opposed ARPA-E from its inception. They argue it is funding work that private industry would otherwise fund itself, says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. But the projects that ARPA-E supports are in such early stages that private industry won't take them on, he says. "There is a singular lack of understanding that applied science does not mean [technological] development, it does not mean picking winners and loser," Lubell says. "It means that this is an area where we see potential applications" for ideas from basic research.

Even though ARPA-E has never been funded at the levels requested by the Obama administration, researchers praise it not only for investing in translational research, but also for putting together a top-flight management team. Howard Herzog, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, worked on an ARPA-E program to develop an electrochemical means of capturing carbon dioxide from industrial exhaust. "At least from the project we did, these people were very much engaged and very much looking to get the project to have some useful outcome, not just to meet the usual program milestones," he says.

Anthony Sinskey, a microbiologist at MIT who worked on an ARPA-E grant to develop a bacterium that could better produce butanol, a fuel, says that gutting ARPA-E would make U.S. scientists less competitive. "These programs will be picked up by other people in other countries," Sinskey says. "I think it's a tragedy."

Given the threats of climate change, the cuts to clean-energy research are short-sighted, Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), who is not a member of the subcommittee, said at the hearing. "With global carbon emissions at record highs and extreme weather events caused by global warming happening with increasing frequency and deadly force, I see no justification for such cuts in renewable energy that reduces our carbon footprint," she said.

Frelinghuysen, however, noted that the bill favors applied research that will bolster U.S. manufacturing and help stabilize gasoline prices. It includes $450 million for research and development in coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels.

House Republicans have traditionally voiced greater support for DOE's basic research wing, the Office of Science. But even it received a dose of tough love. The subcommittee would trim its budget by 0.2% to $4.653 billion, a level that could lead to further belt-tightening in DOE's cash-strapped programs in nuclear physics, high-energy physics, and other fields.

The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the DOE spending bill later this month. But it's not clear how much influence it will have on DOE's final 2014 spending. The Senate, controlled by the Democrats, is likely to give ARPA-E and other clean energy programs higher spending levels when it takes up its version of the bill. And Lubell, for one, says he doubts that the House and Senate will be able to agree on a final number. He suspects that Congress may ultimately enact a continuing resolution—just like the one that extended last year's budget into this year.

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