Energy Secretary Steven Chu was the only witness at a ninety-minute hearing held by the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this week. Chu, testifying on the FY 2010 Department of Energy request, was well-received, although he encountered some skepticism about aspects of the department’s proposed budget.
Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-ND) opened the hearing by commenting on how the department’s $27.1 billion request was basically flat as compared to this year’s appropriation. Dorgan characterized the Office of Science request as “robust,” and described the proposed Energy Innovation Hubs in favorable terms. The subcommittee’s Ranking Republican, Robert Bennett (R-UT), suggested that the Office of Management and Budget had influenced the preparation of the request, warning that a chronic pension shortfall for some DOE workers threatened funding for science and weapon facilities’ cleanup programs. Bennett also seemed to question the ability of the Office of Science to promptly spend its $1.6 billion in economic stimulus funding, saying that it “can only shovel so much money out the door.”
Chu briefly summarized his written testimony, explaining that the request emphasized science, discovery and innovation. He told the committee he wants to better utilize basic research supported by the Office of Science to maximize energy breakthroughs, emphasizing the proposed Energy Innovation Hubs and their work in areas such as artificial photosynthesis or better batteries.
Many of the questions addressed to Chu focused on research areas that senators felt had been inadequately funded. Chairman Dorgan argued that flat funding for coal R&D was unwise, and took real issue with what he called the near zeroing out of funding for hydrogen research. He criticized how the department’s proposal would end funding for 500 jobs in universities, national laboratories, and industry. Calling himself a “big fan” of hydrogen and fuel cells, he acknowledged that while their utilization would not occur in the near term, it was the mission of DOE to pursue such long-term research. Chu responded that it was a difficult decision and spoke of problems in the compact storage of hydrogen for use in vehicles, the use of reformulated natural gas as its source, and supply infrastructure obstacles. Dorgan replied he would not support shutting down hydrogen research and that the subcommittee would do everything it could to continue it.
Dorgan also asked about the status of the panel to develop alternatives to the storage of radioactive waste. Chu said a list of names was now circulating in the White House, and spoke of his support for interim storage and the eventual reprocessing of spent fuel, adding during later questioning that he thought “the waste problem is solvable.”
Ranking Member Bennett asked additional questions about how quickly DOE would spend its economic stimulus funding. Chu said the department hopes to obligate 70 percent of this funding by Labor Day, saying there would be a “massive review” of many programs this summer. He called this process a “herculean task” that would involve many reviewers coming to Washington for a week this summer.
Other questions addressed to Secretary Chu involved innovative uses of CO2, proposed solar facilities on desert lands in California, the clean up of World War II and Cold War facilities, new storage facilities for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the potential of geothermal and wind energy, weatherization, and proposed requirements for renewal energy production.
In a related development, the Senate confirmed Under Secretary for Science Steven Koonin this week. Koonin was previously the Chief Scientist for BP, following twenty-nine years at the California Institute of Technology where he was a Professor of Theoretical Physics and the Institute’s Provost.