Senate Passes Bipartisan Energy Policy Bill Loaded with Science Provisions

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Publication date: 
22 April 2016
Number: 
48

The Senate approved its first major energy policy bill in nine years, and it includes a slew of provisions which are relevant to the science community.

A culmination of years of legislative effort, the Senate passed the “Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016” on Wednesday morning by a vote of 85 to 12. This comprehensive and bipartisan omnibus energy policy bill reflects the policy contributions of 80 senators and is the product of ten legislative and oversight hearings, drawing from over 100 individual bills, and an extensive floor debate and amendment process. It is the first energy policy bill the Senate has passed since the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, and it includes a number of provisions that could have major impacts on the science community.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

Speaking on the Senate floor this week, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and bill sponsor Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) emphasized the all-of-the-above strategy the legislation takes, saying it would help the U.S. produce more homegrown energy, save energy, secure critical minerals, and boost energy innovation. The 796-page bill includes five titles, focusing on energy efficiency, infrastructure, supply, accountability, and land and water conservation. This structure emerged out of a three-day business meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with the land and conservation title being added in recent days.

Among the bill’s sections and 65 amendments approved by the Senate during floor debate are numerous provisions that impact science, among them:

  • a section authorizing funds for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) from fiscal years 2016 through 2020;
  • two sections that would create DOE technology transfer programs, one for early stage technology demonstrations at the national laboratories and another for technology transfer from the laboratories to small businesses;
  • a section that would authorize DOE to establish “microlabs” co-located with national laboratories for the purpose of facilitating technology transfer;
  • a subtitle drawn from a stand-alone bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) to advance DOE’s nuclear energy research and development (R&D);
  • a subtitle drawn from a stand-alone bill sponsored by Murkowski to promote the nation’s production and strategic management of critical minerals;
  • a section on helium that would shift control of and responsibility for helium supply away from the federal government and toward private entities;
  • an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to require DOE to make information about its research contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, and other transactions available to the public through an online database;
  • an amendment sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to prohibit general and administrative overhead costs from being allocated to Laboratory-Directed R&D; and
  • an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) to establish a White House National Science and Technology Council subcommittee to coordinate U.S. high-energy physics research.

After a false start in late January when the Senate was expected to pass the energy bill but was derailed by an impasse over whether the bill should include funds to address the Flint water crisis, the legislation reached a remarkably bipartisan finale. The Senate now must conference its bill with the House, which passed its own energy policy legislation, the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015” last year, eliciting a White House veto threat.

Bill proposes 5% annual increases for Office of Science, bigger boosts for ARPA-E

As approved in committee, the Senate bill would have authorized funding for the Office of Science at a pace of four percent annual increases, but on Feb. 2 the Senate agreed to an amendment offered jointly by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to boost the increases to five percent per year.

While funding authorizations are not binding on the annual budget process, they serve as guidelines to appropriators on agency and program funding levels. Under the bill, the Office of Science would be slated to receive $7.134 billion by fiscal year 2020. However, the funding levels that would be authorized under the bill in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 are significantly higher than the levels already appropriated  for the Office of Science in fiscal year 2016 ($5.35 billion) and which the President ($5.57 billion), House ($5.40 billion), and Senate ($5.40 billion) have proposed through the fiscal year 2017 budget process.

In their floor speeches pitching the boosted funding authorizations, Durbin and Alexander gushed about the Office of Science. Durbin emphasized the contributions the Office of Science has made over the years to biomedical innovation and saving lives by improving medicine. He spoke of how research in the 1970s at Fermilab’s particle accelerator drove cutting-edge research in superconducting wire fabrication, paving the way for magnetic resonance imaging machines. Highlighting another national laboratory based in his home state of Illinois, Durbin continued:

Another example of the Department of Energy’s success can be found in Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source. Its power x-ray beams…allow scientists to see how viruses, such as HIV, replicate and how cancer grows. This understanding led to the discovery of a new drug for AIDS therapy, a drug called Kaletra, which is now the most prescribed drug in its class for this deadly disease. It also led to the development of a drug, Zelboraf, to treat melanoma. This drug has been used by 11,000 patients worldwide and is approved in 43 countries.

Durbin added that because building and operating a facility like the Advanced Photon Source is too expensive and specialized for a private company, it is only through federal investment that we can make these kind of breakthroughs. Alexander assured his colleagues that funding for this kind of research is well-aligned with the Republican philosophy of government:

…an important part of a Republican pro-growth policy is support for government-sponsored research. That is how we got 3-D mapping and horizontal drilling that led to unconventional gas and oil. That is how we are going to get the cost of carbon capture low enough to make it commercial. That is how we are going to get solar panels cheap enough to make them useful. We should reduce wasteful spending on subsidies for mature energy technology and double energy research, and this would do that on a conservative path.

The legislation would also reauthorize funding for ARPA-E, renewing the applied energy research program first authorized by the America COMPETES Act of 2007. The Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) – by a vote of 55 to 37 – to boost the funding authorized for ARPA-E to $325 million for fiscal years 2016 through 2018 and to $375 million for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

Bill aims to advance nuclear energy innovation and U.S. critical minerals strategy

The Senate legislation also incorporates the entirety of two stand-alone bills: Crapo’s “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” and Murkowski’s “American Minerals Security Act.” As FYI reported, the House passed its version of the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” on March 2 and a companion bill to the “American Minerals Security Act” called the “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act” on Oct. 22, also covered by FYI. The Senate passage of these subtitles demonstrates there is bicameral and bipartisan support for nuclear energy R&D and critical minerals legislation, although the chambers will still have to work out the differences.

Murkowski is particularly invested in the critical minerals subtitle, which she has introduced in three separate Congresses. The critical minerals subtitle would:

  • require the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct assessments to designate which minerals qualify as critical minerals and to complete a comprehensive national assessment of each critical mineral;
  • call on key federal departments to streamline permitting for mining critical minerals;
  • establish a DOE R&D program to promote the efficient production, use, and recycling of critical minerals, and to develop alternatives to critical minerals that do not occur in abundance in the U.S.;
  • and require USGS to publish an annual report assessing, analyzing, and forecasting supply and demand of critical minerals, to be called the “Annual Critical Minerals Outlook.”

The nuclear energy R&D subtitle would:

  • create a DOE program leveraging high-performance computational facilities in order to develop new nuclear reactor technologies;
  • require DOE to study a mission need for a “versatile reactor-based fast neutron source”; and
  • allow DOE and NRC to establish a National Nuclear Innovation Center to enable testing and demonstration of new reactor concepts.

For details on provisions of the House’s version of the nuclear energy R&D bill, see this FYI bulletin from last year.

Murkowski: Energy bill stands as a model for how the Senate can still work

Before any of these provisions become law, however, the House will need to agree, and the president will need to sign the bill into law. Given the limited amount of time on the legislative calendar between now and July when Congress will break for recess, Murkowski is uncertain of whether there is enough time to complete a bicameral conference.

Regardless of the final outcome, for Murkowski, Senate passage of the bill is a hard-earned victory that offers a glimpse of hope for a return to a functional Congress:

I think this bill has shown that the Senate does work, the Senate can work cooperatively, that they can work toward a bipartisan product that will produce long-lasting benefits for the people who have sent us here to serve them.

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