Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified before two important panels in the last week: the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. As expected, most questions centered on energy prices and nuclear waste disposal, and to a lesser degree, DOE’s science programs.
In opening remarks at the February 28 appropriations hearing, subcommittee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) criticized the FY 2013 request for the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program (EERE) as being “painfully thin on specifics” despite being one-third of the requested departmental increase. Frelinghuysen also criticized the loan guarantee program, the Obama Administration’s moves to terminate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and the department’s emphasis on renewable energy. He offered praise for the Administration’s actions regarding the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Frelinghuysen did not discuss the department’s science programs.
Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) shared Frelinghuysen’s concerns about Yucca Mountain, and expressed more pointed concern about the department’s construction management practices. Visclosky briefly mentioned the importance of DOE’s support of basic research, and his desire that products based on initial discoveries financed by U.S. taxpayers result in American jobs.
Also attending this hearing were House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) who faulted the DOE request for being unbalanced in its support of various types of energy, the proposed increase for EERE, and for its political favoritism. Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA) was far more supportive of the DOE request, although he too was opposed to the Administration’s actions on Yucca Mountain.
These topics dominated the 90-minute hearing. There was uniform agreement that more needs to be done to build and retain U.S. manufacturing. Support was voiced for NNSA. Doubts were expressed about an over-emphasis on “green technologies,” rising gasoline prices, the Administration’s commitment to fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and the disposal of nuclear waste.
Members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee discussed many of these points when Chu testified before them on March 1. Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) both expressed dissatisfaction with the request. Members questioned Chu on gasoline prices, Yucca Mountain, political favors, natural gas development, and the Keystone Pipeline.
Of note were several exchanges on science programs. In answer to a question from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chu said there was no FY 2013 DOE request to restart Pu-238 production for deep space probes. DOE is now working with NASA to develop a production strategy. Rohrabacher hoped that the program “isn’t lost in the shuffle.”
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) is worried about significant cuts in the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s budget and the impact on its workforce. He also discussed a recent report by a National Research Council committee on the management of the labs. Chu spoke of the excellent work performed at Los Alamos, praised its staff, and explained difficult choices were required in the formulation of the budget. Lujan said he would be working with Chu and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) on the laboratory’s FY 2013 budget.
Chu again discussed budgetary constraints when Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) expressed concern about the budget request for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory that would reduce its operations by approximately 50 percent as compared to this year. Again, Chu praised the laboratory’s contributions, but did not offer any prediction on its future budget.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) was far sharper in his criticism, calling the FY 2013 request an “anti-science” budget that would hurt long term U.S. competitiveness. He charged that basic research funding would be cut to support favored applied research and technology development programs. Hultgren was particularly critical of a proposed cut in Fermilab’s funding and the Administration’s action on the Homestake Mine in South Dakota.
The National Ignition Facility would have to be “mothballed” in FY 2013 Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) declared because of the Administration’s request. Chu disputed that would occur, saying “I know of no plans . . . the funding is adequate for NIF to continue.” He looks forward to achieving ignition at the facility. Lofgren was not convinced, and pointing to a projected increase in U.S. funding for ITER said she would, if necessary, lead a bipartisan effort to defund it.
Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) asked Chu if the requested 2.4 percent increase for the Office of Science, when compared to the much larger increases in the EERE and ARPA-E budgets, reflected a lower priority for science. Chu reassured Biggert that the Office of Science remained a high priority.
A release issued by Republicans on the Science Committee, while critical of many aspects of the FY 2013 DOE request, concluded on a promising note that aptly summarizes both hearings: “while there were considerable differences of opinion represented today, one area of bipartisan agreement was support for basic scientific research at the DOE Office of Science.”