Many of the issues falling within the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy are highly controversial on Capitol Hill. They include topics such as Yucca Mountain, climate change, nuclear power, fossil fuels, and alternative energy. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was asked about all of these issues at yesterday’s hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. While it is unlikely that Moniz changed any minds on these hot-button topics during his two hour appearance, his straight-forward answers avoided the controversies that often characterize other congressional hearings on these same issues.
The hearing reviewed the FY 2016 request of $29.9 billion for the Department of Energy, which is an increase of 9.2 percent over this year. The Science Committee has jurisdiction over many components of the department’s activities, providing oversight and writing authorization legislation on a periodic basis. Of particular interest to the physics research community is the committee’s jurisdiction over the Office of Science. The appropriations committees are responsible for annual funding bills.
In his opening statement Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) commented that “the president’s budget proposal appears to ignore the fiscal realities and constraints facing the nation.” He continued:
“With this request, the administration continues to prioritize short-term, expensive commercialization activities and energy subsidies that result in the government picking winners and losers in the energy technology marketplace. This administration claims to be a proponent of a balanced, all-of-the-above energy strategy. While I applaud the requested increased investment in basic scientific research and development, I am concerned that the president’s true priorities in this budget lie elsewhere.”
“Finally, it is our responsibility in Congress to ensure American tax dollars are spent wisely and efficiently. While funding every research project seems like a worthy goal, it is simply unsustainable. We will have to make tough choices about how to best use our limited resources. As we shape the future of the Department of Energy, our priority must be to emphasize basic energy research and development, not to impose expensive and often inefficient technology on the American people. Instead, the administration should invest in breakthrough discoveries from basic research that will continue to provide the foundation for private sector development across the energy spectrum. This will create jobs and grow our economy, which is a goal I think we all share.”
In her opening remarks, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) applauded DOE’s requested increases for several programs, including the Office of Science. She then stated:
“However, I do have concerns with a few areas of the Department’s proposed budget. The advanced reactor program within the Office of Nuclear Energy and the fusion energy program within the Office of Science would both receive sizable cuts under the proposed DOE budget. Over the long term, both of these types of advanced technologies have the potential to play a major role in enabling a vibrant low-carbon economy, so I hope we can discuss this further and see if, perhaps, these funding levels should be reconsidered.”
Early in his prepared testimony Moniz described DOE’s role in “providing the backbone for discovery and innovation, especially in the physical sciences, for America’s research community.” He later added, “We are committed to staying at the cutting edge of light sources, super computers, neutron sources, and other facilities essential to advancing our mission,” describing recent or contemplated upgrades of facilities at Brookhaven, Thomas Jefferson, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, SLAC, Fermilab, and Michigan State.
As expected, committee members asked Moniz about a wide range of issues. Chairman Smith asked about the Keystone Pipeline; Ranking Member Johnson about DOE programs on the interface between water and energy. In response to later questions about nuclear energy, Moniz told the committee that “we strongly support nuclear energy” and later commented that the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository “is not workable,” calling for a consent-based approach to the siting of such facilities. He also expressed support for the development of Small Modular Reactors as “a very important direction.” Moniz answered questions about fossil fuels, carbon capture, LNG exports, alternative energy, electrical grid security, environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and technology transfer.
Other questions centered on the Office of Science. Moniz called the 5.4 percent increase “a very strong request” that would fully support the development of new tools and facilities at the national laboratories. The request would, if approved by Congress, fund operations across DOE’s suite of facilities at a rate of 98 percent. Since Moniz has recused himself from the fusion program, Under Secretary for Science and Energy Lynn Orr spoke of the importance of ITER and three domestic fusion facility programs, calling the FY 2016 request “balanced across those commitments.” In later responses to committee members Moniz twice praised the Office of Science for how it has staged work on its major facilities.
Moniz testified before the Science Committee in April 2014 on the FY 2015 request. The FYI on that hearing was entitled “Good Hearing for DOE Secretary Moniz Before House Science Committee.” That same title equally applies to his appearance before the committee yesterday.