Science Committee Sends Energy Research Bill to House Floor

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Publication date: 
30 August 2006

The House Science Committee has sent legislation to the full House that would authorize elements of President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative. H.R. 5656, the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application Act of 2006, now awaits consideration by the full House.

This legislation was introduced by Energy Subcommittee Chairman Judy Biggert (R-IL), who has long taken an active interest in the research programs of the Department of Energy. The bill was passed by the Science Committee earlier this summer after a mark up session lasting less than 90 minutes. The legislation was based on ten hearings held over the last two years, and followed hours of bipartisan staff work that was lauded by committee leadership on both sides. As Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) explained in his opening remarks, "this Committee is a model of what we should be doing."

In discussing her bill, Biggert explained that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 "was just the first step, and nobody should expect our nation's energy problems to disappear overnight." The legislation is wide-ranging, and would authorize Department of Energy research, development, demonstration and commercial application programs that include biofuels, hydrogen storage in vehicles, solar power, wind power, clean coal, and advanced nuclear fuel cycle R&D. The legislation would also send back to the National Academy of Sciences for further study its recommendation for an ARPA-Energy agency that was contained in its report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."

The bill's language on an advanced fuel cycle technologies research, development, and demonstration plan is notable. It gives this research, a key component of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, in Boehlert's words, "an amber light." The committee report accompanying the bill explains that the bill "Requires the [Energy] Secretary to develop a comprehensive modeling and simulation capability to analyze advanced nuclear fuel cycle systems [note the plural noun], to use this capability to analyze possible advanced nuclear fuel cycle systems, and to use this analysis to develop a plan for advanced nuclear power technology RD&D activities." But the Science Committee did not give this a green light, since as the report states, the bill "Prohibits the Secretary from moving forward on some large-scale advanced nuclear fuel cycle technology demonstration projects until the advanced nuclear power technology RD&D plan is reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), revised by the Secretary in light of the NAS findings and recommendations, and delivered to Congress." The report would be due no later than June 30, 2008. The annual limit for any such demonstration processing facility is 750 kilograms of spent fuel. Boehlert predicted that this portion of the bill will probably move by itself on the House floor. The committee's report provides quite extensive language on the Members' approach, which will be provided in FYI #108.

Regarding advanced hydrogen storage technologies, this bill requires the Energy Secretary to "design the program . . . to develop practical hydrogen storage technologies that would enable a hydrogen-fueled light-duty motor vehicle to travel 300 miles before refueling."

The only area of disagreement during the Science Committee's markup of this bill was over its response to the "Gathering Storm" report recommendation that an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) be established at the Department of Energy. Ranking Democratic Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced legislation authorizing this agency, and one of the Senate PACE bills would do likewise. Boehlert had a series of questions about the proposed agency that had been raised in a hearing last March (see There were about fifteen minutes of good-natured discussion among committee members before a voice vote defeated Gordon's amendment to authorize the agency. Instead, as the report explains, the bill calls for the Energy Secretary to enter into an agreement with the National Academies "to conduct a detailed study of, and make further recommendations on" the ARPA-E recommendation. The study is required within twelve months of the bill's enactment. FYI #109 will have Boehlert's prepared statement opposing Gordon's amendment, and Gordon's additional views from the committee report outlining his support for the agency.

This bill now awaits action on the House floor, where the congressional calendar is a major constraint. Congress will be in Washington for roughly a month after it gets back next week before it recesses for the November election. It will then come back in a lame duck session in which the major push will be to enact the FY 2007 appropriations bills for that fiscal year, which will then be over a month old. If H.R. 5656 is passed it will then have to go to conference with the Senate bill, S. 2197 (which has 66 cosponsors) that has been awaiting floor consideration since March. Time is of the essence.