House Science Committee Examines DOE Budget

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Publication date: 
26 April 2011

A hearing last month in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee showcased sharp partisan differences in Members’ views of the Obama Administration’s budget request for the Department of Energy. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu fielded a broad range of questions that highlighted diverging views of what the U.S. energy future should be.

In his opening statement, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) expressed concern about the Obama Administration’s priorities, saying “What is notable, however, is the degree to which the President has ‘doubled-down’ on his energy and climate agenda in light of the continued struggling economy, trillion-dollar deficits, rising gas prices, and fuel supply concerns driven by Middle East turmoil.

By contrast, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in her opening remarks, said:

“We cannot roll back the clock on our economy. Our economic woes weren’t caused by too much science. At a time like this we need to make the critical investments to bolster our research infrastructure and our future workforce, advancing our technological capabilities now, while sowing the seeds for the industries of the future. And let me clear; I stand with the President, a number of respected conservative columnists, numerous policy experts, and, I believe, the American people when I say that these are investments, and not just spending. With research and science education, there is a guaranteed return.”

With this hearing occurring prior to the FY 2011 budget deal signed into law earlier this month, Johnson also raised concerns about the level of spending cuts to the DOE budget supported by the Republican majority in H.R. 1.

Hall’s questions to Chu centered around President Obama’s call to require that 80 percent of electricity be generated from clean energy sources by the year 2035. He cited a study of a similar clean energy standard that claimed the cost of such a plan would be $200 billion per year. He said that enacting the Administration’s plan would mandate that Americans pay higher electricity costs, just as the Administration’s cap and trade proposal would have.

Chu explained that the definition of “clean energy” that the Administration is using includes nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas along with wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables. Under this definition the U.S. is already producing 40% of its electricity from clean energy sources. Therefore, said Chu, reaching 80% by 2035 is not unrealistic, particularly considering that many of the nation’s existing power plants are towards the end of their operating lives and will need to be replaced anyway.

With her question time, Johnson asked Chu to discuss the implications of the cuts to the Office of Science proposed in H.R. 1. Chu said that, with such a large national debt, tough choices will have to be made in the budget process. However, he argued that across-the-board cuts are the wrong approach, saying that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and clean energy are two of the most important engines of the future.

Chu elaborated on this theme later in the hearing in response to questions from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), saying that dramatic cuts to science would have impacts beyond the jobs that would have to be cut in the short term. He asserted that the uncertainty of scientific funding could lead scientists to pursue careers abroad; it could also dissuade students from entering the field by making science appear to be an unstable career path. Chu also noted that DOE has funded more Nobel laureates than any other entity in the world, but that China is working hard to develop its universities. With U.S. national labs and research institutions facing cuts, this could give China more momentum in its efforts.

Johnson also questioned Chu on areas of innovation in which the U.S. is falling behind China. Chu listed many, telling the Committee that China has built the world’s fastest high speed train, is building the most new nuclear power plants, builds the highest efficiency coal plants with the best available scrubbers, and builds the highest capacity electric transmission lines. He added that China is finding a significant worldwide export market for many of these products.

When his turn came, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) declared that “We are not in a Sputnik moment, we are in a deficit spending moment,” adding that in the current fiscal environment, the Obama Administration’s proposed spending levels were a “shock to the system.” Taking Johnson’s question as his lead-in, Rohrabacher went on to suggest that the areas in which the U.S. lags China are not due to lack of investment in research, but rather are a result of excessive government regulation impeding private business’s ability to develop and market new technology.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), Chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, questioned Chu about DOE’s production of documents related to the Administration’s decision to cancel the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project. Chu responded that he believed the Department had already turned over thousands of pages, but Broun interjected saying that Chu was incorrect. Broun went on to request that all documents be turned over, along with an explanation of what exemption the Department claims for any documents omitted.

Broun then went on to question why the Administration is blocking development of fossil energy resources in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve and Outer Continental Shelf when gasoline prices continue to rise and are projected to reach $5 per gallon this summer. Broun argued that the nation needs an “all of the above” energy policy. Chu countered that everything the Department is doing is focused on developing alternative sources of energy that will reduce our nation’s oil consumption and thus drive the price down. He also noted that the Administration does believe in an “all of the above policy,” but that this must be an integrated policy that takes into account the fact that the United States consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil while possessing just 2 percent of global oil reserves.

Addressing a different aspect of energy policy, Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) asked Chu, on behalf of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), about DOE’s efforts to regain our international edge in solar energy. Chu answered by discussing the Department’s SunShot initiative, a comprehensive effort to work with industry to reduce the cost of solar energy by 75% by the year 2020, which would make it cost competitive with any other form of energy by the year 2020.

Both Rep. Chuck Fleischman (R-TN) and Rep. Dan Lipinsky (D-IL) discussed their support for small modular reactors (SMRs). Fleischman focused specifically on the substantial electricity needs of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is in his district, while Lipinsky asked more broadly about whether the U.S. is doing enough to ensure a robust, well-trained workforce for the nuclear industry. Chu noted that DOE is committed to helping industry work through the licensing of SMRs, but acknowledged that more needs to be done in the long term to ensure the future health of the nuclear industry. He contended that a clean energy standard would go a long way towards accomplishing that goal because it would ensure that nuclear power was needed, thus attracting workers to the industry.

Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN) questioned Chu on DOE’s marketing campaign targeting children, which attempted to get children to convince their parents to use energy efficiency measures, suggesting that in a tight budget environment, this was not the best use of Department funds. He questioned whether DOE has evidence that the campaign was successful. Chu replied that they did not have studies on this campaign in particular, but noted that campaigns encouraging children to talk to their parents about quitting smoking had been very successful.