House Science Committee Discusses Department of Energy Science and Technology Priorities

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Publication date: 
8 July 2013

A June 18 hearing in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee provided Members an opportunity to ask questions to newly appointed Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz regarding research at the Department of Energy (DOE).  Members showed an interest in energy research and development priorities, particularly in the area of climate science.  On the Republican side, Members cast doubts on the human impact on levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while on the Democratic side, they encouraged Moniz to state, for the record, that the climate is changing and that the increase of carbon dioxide levels leads to warming. 

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) opened the hearing by emphasizing the role of hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas production while drawing attention to the Keystone XL Pipeline and the role the Federal government should play in regulating fracking.  He stated his preferences for prioritizing the DOE budget, explaining “I believe a better approach is to place a higher priority on fundamental research that will enable new energy technologies to become more cost-effective.”  Regarding climate change, Smith noted it is widely agreed that any effective solution to climate concerns must be global in nature.  And while the U.S. has reduced carbon emissions in recent years, developing countries have shown little desire for voluntarily switching to more expensive forms of alternative energy.”   He stated that coal usage will likely remain unchanged “unless alternative forms of energy become more cost-effective” as he suggested that the US should “shift from costly subsidies to research and market-driven technological solutions that will be used around the world.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) opened stating that she was pleased with the DOE budget request and noting the “much-needed boost” to the Office of Science, Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Office of Electricity and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.  She showed support for the DOE research that was instrumental in the development of gas turbines, nuclear reactors, and technology used in hydraulic fracturing but cautioned we should remember that those achievements required decades of federal investment, the overwhelming majority of which was focused on fossil and nuclear energy.”  She suggested that “it is time to level the playing field and introduce real competition to the markets” and “today it is the emerging energy technology sectors that can most benefit from government support.” 

Moniz highlighted changes in the global energy landscape since President Obama took office.  “In the United States, oil and gas production has increased each year, while oil imports have fallen to a 20 year low. At the same time, renewable electricity generation from wind, solar, and geothermal sources has doubled; and carbon emissions have fallen to the lowest level in the U.S. in nearly two decades. These changes have important implications for our economy, environment, and national security. Already we are seeing the effects of increased U.S. oil and natural gas production on global energy markets.” 

Moniz noted that “the risks of global climate change threaten the health, security, and prosperity of future generations” as he emphasized that the DOE “must continue to support a robust research and development portfolio of low-carbon options and key enablers: efficiency, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage, and smart and resilient grids.”    He mentioned the Department’s new initiatives, including Race to the Top for Energy Efficiency and Grid Modernization as well as the Energy Security Trust.  Both programs are aimed at encouraging development of new technologies relating to energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Chairman Smith opened his round of questions asking about DOE loan guarantee programs, wanting assurance from Moniz that taxpayers would be paid back in the event that companies receiving the loan guarantees fail.  He seemed pleased to hear that of the new loan guarantee programs, no new programs were aimed at solar energy.  Smith pressed Moniz to state the percentage of climate change that is due to human activity.  While Moniz responded that human activity is a major driver of climate change, Smith seemed displeased that Moniz did not state a specific percentage.  Smith also asked about what technologies could be “potential breakthroughs” in reducing carbon emissions without raising taxes or providing government subsidies.  Moniz responded by highlighting that research in building efficiency could have significant effects in this area and also noted potential improvements in battery and energy storage technology, small modular nuclear reactors, and solar technology. 

Johnson was very interested in hearing more about the energy-water nexus.  Moniz noted that a large percentage of the nation’s water supply is used in the production of hydropower.  He also mentioned the work of a joint Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and DOE task force on hydrofracking.  Johnson also wanted to hear from Moniz about what were the risks if the US does not take action on climate change.  Moniz responded by assuring the committee that while scientists cannot assign one specific event that has led to warming, the trend of warming and the dramatic effects on sea ice are apparent. 

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) pressed Moniz for information about the amount of natural production of carbon dioxide versus human production.  Moniz declared that “anthropogenic sources are a major driver.”  Rohrabacher wanted to know the ocean effects of human-made carbon dioxide as well as the effects of natural carbon dioxide and was interested to learn whether there was a difference in the way that oceans absorb carbon dioxide from different sources. 

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) turned the conversation towards energy efficiency, suggesting that DOE could benefit from allowing scientists and engineers to participate in entrepreneurial education programs, similar to the I-CORPS program at the National Science Foundation.  He wanted to know how the Energy Innovation Hubs would work moving forward.  Moniz emphasized the interdisciplinary research at the Innovation Hubs and mentioned that he intends to carry out a review of the management and operation of the existing hubs. 

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) pressed Moniz to provide information on hydraulic fracturing, stating that he felt that there was an undue focus on the effects that fracking has on drinking water.  Moniz cautioned that there is a penetration process in hydraulic fracking that is complex. 

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) reiterated her opinion about climate change by highlighting that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that it is occurring.  She wanted Moniz to assure the committee that increased levels of carbon dioxide leads to warming and that humans have contributed to the warming that is occurring.  Moniz responded by again confirming that “anthropogenic activity has been a major contributor to global warming.”

The conversation continued with Members asking Moniz for clarification about climate change and renewable energy.  Republicans continued to ask Moniz to state what percentage of carbon dioxide emissions come from human activity while Democrats focused their questions on renewable energy.  While the two sides of the committee disagree on many aspects of climate change, they were very interested in engaging Moniz in conversations on this and other issues.  Committee Members on both sides showed support for basic or discovery-driven research such as that which is conducted by the DOE Office of Science, though the topics of discussion during the hearing were largely focused on climate and energy issues.  Members were particularly pleased that his confirmation vote was unanimous and seemed interested in engaging in further conversations with him.

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