DOE Appropriators Take Familiar Stances on Research Priorities at Recent Hearings

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Publication date: 
10 March 2016
Number: 
32

At recent hearings on the Department of Energy budget request for fiscal year 2017, key appropriations leaders largely dismissed the president’s proposal for large funding increases to clean energy research and development as unrealistic and / or unbalanced. They then took familiar stances on research priorities, including support for basic energy research as well as skepticism about certain fusion energy projects.

"The president’s budget request this year is at best unhelpful, and at worst it’s misleading,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) at the outset of a March 9 appropriations hearing marked by disagreements with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz over the proposed sources and levels of funding for certain initiatives.

This hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations subcommittee, which Alexander chairs, was the fourth held to review the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). Three other hearings were held by the companion appropriations committee in the House and the relevant House and Senate authorization committees on Mar. 1, Mar. 2, and Mar. 3, respectively. Moniz was the sole witness at each.

Mission Innovation or Mission Impossible?

In a lengthy written statement, which closely mirrors his verbal opening statement, Alexander laid out three focus areas: “(1) doubling basic energy research, (2) the future of nuclear energy, and (3) keeping large projects on time and on budget.” Notably, Subcommittee ranking member Diane Feinstein (D-CA) began her own opening statement by saying that she was “generally in agreement” with Alexander’s opening statement.

Alexander quickly dismissed the proposal to use new mandatory funding streams to pay for doubling government support of clean energy research and development (R&D) by 2021 as part of the Mission Innovation initiative. He instead argued that increases should be funded with money gained from ending subsidies for the wind, oil, and gas industries since they all use “mature technologies.”

Furthermore, Alexander’s comments made clear that he has different views on the types of research that should be included in the doubling. Alexander has been a longtime supporter of doubling basic energy research, not the partly overlapping category of clean energy R&D identified for doubling by the Mission Innovation initiative.

Alexander indicated his preference for increasing funding for the DOE Office of Science, noting that he and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) successfully amended the bipartisan Energy Policy Modernization Act currently being considered by the Senate to authorize higher funding levels for the Office of Science, putting it on a ten-year doubling path.

Feinstein did not comment directly on these statements by Alexander. Rather, she emphasized that although she thinks the Mission Innovation initiative should be a priority, she is very doubtful that the funding allocation that will be provided to the subcommittee later this year will be sufficient to support the called for increases.

Switching to the House side, both Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House appropriations committee, and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), Alexander’s House counterpart on the energy appropriations subcommittee, panned the president’s budget request for DOE as relying on “gimmicks.” Furthermore, both asserted that it is not consistent with the “all of the above” energy policy touted by the administration.

While the Mission Innovation initiative claims to advance all clean energy solutions, even the most casual review of the budget indicates that the new funding is intended almost entirely for [the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy],

said Simpson, contending that the proposed budget underfunds nuclear and fossil energy R&D. Similarly, Rogers argued that the budget proposal does not provide sufficient support for carbon capture and sequestration research.

Fusion follies?

Two major fusion research efforts came under scrutiny at the Senate appropriations hearing: the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the ITER fusion project.

Feinstein first questioned the value of continuing to support NIF, noting that it was supposed to achieve ignition (a self-sustaining fusion reaction) by 2012, but now some scientists say it may never be able to do so.

Moniz countered this line of argument by asserting that the goal of NIF should not be framed in terms of achieving ignition: “Frankly, [the goal] should have been phrased differently. … The real goal, the key goal, was exploring extreme regimes of pressures and temperatures of relevance to nuclear weapons, and that has been done.”

Feinstein then pivoted to ITER, pointing out that it could soon require annual appropriations of $250 to $400 million per year, making it the most expensive Office of Science project on a yearly basis. “Such funding requirement would negatively impact our ability to invest in new or upgraded scientific facilities, such as the light sources,” she said. Potential upgrades to the light sources were a major focus of a recent appropriations hearing on the Office of Science budget request.

In response, Moniz noted that project management at ITER has improved significantly under the new director general and that the department is submitting a report to Congress in early May containing its views on whether the U.S. should continue to contribute to the project.

Feinstein concluded, “This is an international program. I don’t know why we need to participate, candidly. If we continue to do so, the costs are huge.” Alexander seemed similarly skeptical, although he appeared willing to defer to Moniz’s judgement given his personal experience in fusion research:

[ITER] may be a nice thing to participate in, but we have real pressing budget priorities here that we’re going to have a hard time meeting, and we’re counting on you with your background to help make a correct decision on that, not just whether it’s something that might be nice, but whether it’s more important than the other options we have to fund.