The Senate begins debate on a major energy policy bill that would authorize increases in basic research funding at the Department of Energy Office of Science, boost technology transfer activities at the national laboratories, advance exascale computing, and modernize national critical mineral policy.
“I have come to the Floor to begin the Senate’s debate on S. 2012, the Energy Policy Modernization Act. This is the first major energy bill the Senate has debated in more than eight years. It is a good bill, a timely bill, a bipartisan bill, and it deserves overwhelming support from this chamber,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in the opening lines of her floor speech this morning. Murkowski called on the Senate to pass the sprawling 427-page legislation that her panel, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, approved in July of 2015. The bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by Murkowski and committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), includes a number of sections that aim to bolster Department of Energy (DOE) basic research, technology transfer, and exascale computing. The bill would also modernize the national policy through which critical minerals are accessed and sourced on public lands and used for energy production and research.
Sections of the legislation that are most relevant to the physical sciences community include:
- an Innovation title with guidance to increase funding for the DOE Office of Science by 4 percent per year through fiscal year 2020;
- a provision that would allow national laboratory directors to use technology transfer funds to carry out early stage technology transfer activities;
- the establishment of a new technology commercialization program which would create microlabs co-located with the national laboratories;
- the establishment of a research program at the national laboratories, to develop exascale computing systems in partnership with industry and institutes of higher education;
- a report on sponsoring privately funded nuclear fusion and fission reactor prototypes at DOE-owned locations;
- the repeal of federal government control of the helium supply sourced from publicly leased lands; and
- an overhaul and modernization of the national policy for critical minerals used in energy production and research.
Science provisions result of collaborations between senators
Murkowski referenced multiple collaborations among senators and stand-alone bills that were incorporated in the final manager’s version of the legislation the Senate is now considering. Among those she specifically mentioned is Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) funding guidance for the DOE Office of Science, which in past years was included in reauthorizations of the America COMPETES Act.
Alexander has long championed and called for doubling of the Office of Science budget. This section of the bill would recommend Congress provide the Office of Science with 4 percent funding increases per year through fiscal year 2020. This is slightly lower than the 5.6 percent increase in funding the Office of Science received in the FY 2016 year-end appropriations law but significantly higher than what the office has received in recent fiscal years.
|DOE Office of Science Funding Levels Authorized in Senate Energy Bill, By Year|
|FY 2016||$5,271.0 million|
|FY 2017||$5,485.0 million|
|FY 2018||$5,704.0 million|
|FY 2019||$5,932.0 million|
|FY 2020||$6,178.0 million|
The energy policy bill also incorporates S. 883, the “American Mineral Security Act,” co-sponsored by Sen. James Risch (R-ID), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV). This legislation would repeal the National Critical Minerals Act of 1984, and in its place require the President to establish an analytical and forecasting capability for critical minerals and encourage federal agencies to facilitate development and production of domestic resources to meet the nation’s critical material and minerals needs. To this end, the U.S. Geological Survey would be required to complete a “comprehensive national assessment” of each mineral that it determines qualifies as a critical mineral. The legislation would also direct DOE to conduct research and development to promote “the production, use, and recycling of critical minerals throughout the supply chain” and “develop alternatives to critical minerals that do not occur in significant abundance in the U.S.”
Murkowski led a bipartisan and thorough legislative process
In her floor speech today, Murkowski described a thorough and consultative legislative process that got the Senate to this point:
“We held four oversight hearings, followed by six legislative hearings on a total of 114 separate measures. We gathered testimony from experts and advocates, from private citizens and Administration officials, from our home States and just about every other State. We gathered all the perspectives we could about what Congress should do – and what Congress needs to do…”
The House passed separate energy policy legislation, H.R. 8 the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015,” on Dec. 3, although the House bill did not include any of the science or critical minerals provisions that are in the Senate energy policy bill. For reasons unrelated to science, the White House has threatened to veto H.R. 8.
Floor debate on the Senate bill will continue for at least a few days, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle optimistic that the Senate will be able to pass the bill, despite plans of some senators to offer partisan amendments. Senate leaders of both political parties have endorsed the bill, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who said, “Not only will this bipartisan legislation help bring our energy policies in line with the demands of today, it will also help position us to benefit from the opportunities of tomorrow.” Should the Senate pass the energy policy bill, differences between the two bills would need to be resolved between the chambers before the President could sign it into law.