If the energy bill is to become law before the end of this Congress, the conference committee led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski will have to successfully hash out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, including on research and advanced nuclear reactor development at the Energy Department and critical minerals exploration at the Interior Department.
Last Thursday, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) formally convened the first meeting of a conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of a sweeping energy policy bill. The House and Senate bills diverge in many places, including on titles supporting basic and applied research, advanced nuclear reactor development, and critical mineral and element exploration. While the conference agreement is expected to contain several science-related titles, which specific provisions make the cut will be determined later in conference.
At last week’s meeting, the 47 members of Congress appointed as conferees by their respective chambers were invited to give opening statements and articulate their priorities for the conference. No votes were recorded and no amendments nor other bill language were offered. According to Murkowski, the meeting was the first time in over a decade the House and Senate convened a conference to consider an energy policy bill.
Murkowski, Upton seek bipartisan bill Obama will sign into law
The conference began with Upton moving to appoint Murkowski as conference committee chair to unanimous agreement. Murkowski used her opening statement to set the terms and expectations for the conference. Both made clear that they intend to produce a bipartisan bill that can pass both chambers and which the president will sign.
Murkowski framed the committee’s charge:
Our task…now is to develop a final bill that can be signed into law. … I want to point to the big picture, so we won’t forget why we are here. This is our chance to modernize our energy policy. It is our opportunity to update policies that have not been updated in nine years. … So let’s work together. Let’s finish the job. Let’s prove the skeptics wrong.
She promised she would run the conference “with the same bipartisan, transparent process that allowed us to pass our Senate bill.”
Murkowski’s congenial approach in the Senate contrasts with the less collaborative approach taken by the House, which has passed two versions of its bill, first in December 2015 and more recently on May 25 of this year, both largely along party lines. Nonetheless, as the lead conferee from the House, Upton sounded a conciliatory and flexible tone coming into conference.
In his opening statement, Upton chimed in:
We do want to work together. We do want to prove the skeptics wrong. I think there is a sweet spot we can rally around, and I'm here to listen and to work and to get things done and not take an avenue of sending a bill to the president that he is going to veto.
Only a few conferees’ opening statements touch on science
The conferees’ opening statements focused mostly on the modernization of the nation’s energy infrastructure, streamlined permitting for natural gas pipelines and exports, energy efficiency standards, and various natural resources provisions. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pointed out that more than 50 senators’ provisions were included in the Senate bill alone, leading to a variety and number of titles and sections that caters to diverse interests and priorities.
The science titles were highlighted most prominently in the opening statements of House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Smith called on the conferees to include a number of bills and bill titles that his committee produced, carefully detailing the purpose and importance of each provision-by-provision.
Smith pointed out a new section of the House bill called Division D - added to the legislation when the chamber passed its latest version of the bill – was drawn from the energy-related titles of two House Science Committee bills: the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act” and the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.” Smith made a pitch that Division D “prioritizes basic research, decreases spending, and requires the Department of Energy to reduce waste and duplication and more effectively invest limited federal resources.”
Johnson was more circumspect, expressing support for selected science provisions, but she also expressed optimism that progress could be made in conference on the science provisions:
The Senate has advanced sensible provisions for ARPA-E, vehicle technologies, energy storage, and related areas. And the House has advanced language that committee Democrats support related to nuclear and fusion energy, research hubs and centers, and improving technology transfer from the labs to the marketplace. We should be able to achieve agreements on those sections of the conference if all parties are on a serious constructive path forward.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) opened his comments by praising the bill for how it he believes it would boost nuclear energy:
This bill does address moving nuclear issues here in America forward. There’s some people who don’t believe that that’s an appropriate thing to do, but I think most people are of the frame of mind that the future belongs to nuclear and that’s where we need to go.
Energy science provisions in Senate and House bills run the gamut
- DOE Office of Science. Authorize funding levels for the DOE Office of Science research programs in fiscal years 2016 through 2020, including:
- $5.81 billion for fiscal year 2017, a $460 million increase over the level appropriated in the current year;
- $6.22 billion for fiscal year 2018;
- $6.66 billion for fiscal year 2019; and
- $7.13 billion for fiscal year 2020.
- ARPA-E. Authorize funding levels for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at $325 million in fiscal years 2016 through 2018 (more than the $291 million that was appropriated for fiscal year 2016) and $375 million for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.
- Exascale computing. Require DOE to develop two or more exascale computing machine architectures at levels of $340 million in fiscal year 2017 and $360 million in fiscal year 2018.
- Lab commercialization and tech transfer. Authorize DOE national laboratories to use technology transfer funds “to carry out early stage and precommercial technology demonstration activities”; facilitate access to the national laboratories for small business concerns; and establish a “microlab” program to enhance regional collaboration between the national laboratories and academic institutions and industry, accelerate technology transfer from national laboratories to the marketplace, and promote regional workforce development.
- Research grants database. Require DOE to establish and maintain a public online database that contains a searchable listing of every unclassified R&D project contract, grant, cooperative agreement, task order for federally funded research and development centers.
- Laboratory-directed R&D. Prohibit operating contractors from allocating costs of general and administrative overhead to laboratory-directed research and development.
- White House committee on high energy physics. Establish a subcommittee under the National Science and Technology Council in the White House “to coordinate federal efforts relating to high-energy physics research.”
- Repeal the Nuclear Science Talent Expansion Program for Institutions of Higher Education and Discovery Science and Engineering Innovation Institutes programs, both authorized in a previous America COMPETES Act.
The House’s amendment to the Senate bill, which the House passed on May 25 by a vote of 241 to 178, contains some differences between provisions and some entirely new provisions altogether. Specifically, the House-amended bill would:
- DOE Office of Science. Fully reauthorize the mission, activities, and funding levels of the DOE Office of Science and its programs, at a level of $5.34 billion in fiscal year 2017, significantly lower than the Senate’s proposed funding authorization level and just under the level appropriated to the Office of Science in the current year. Within that amount, the bill authorizes in fiscal year 2017:
- $1.85 billion for Basic Energy Science, about level with the current appropriated amount;
- $788 million for High Energy Physics, $7 million less than the current appropriated level;
- $550 million for Biological and Environmental Research, $59 million less than the current appropriated level;
- $624.7 million for Nuclear Physics, $7.7 million more than the current appropriated level;
- $621 million for Advanced Scientific Computing Research, level with the current appropriated amount;
- $488 million for Fusion Energy Sciences, $50 million more than the current appropriated level; and
- $113.6 million for Science Laboratories Infrastructure.
- Light Source Leadership Initiative. Require the Office of Science to establish an initiative to sustain and advance global leadership of light source use facilities.
- Exascale computing program. Require DOE to establish, through competitive merit review, two or more National Laboratory-industry-university partnerships to conduct integrated research, development, and engineering of multiple exascale architectures.
- Climate science limitation. Prohibit the Office of Science from establishing “new climate science-related initiatives to be carried out through the Office of Science without making a determination that such work is unique and not duplicative of work by other Federal agencies.”
- ITER. Require a series of reports on the schedule and progress regarding the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor fusion project under construction in France and how ITER fits within DOE’s fusion energy R&D activities.
- Isotope development and production. Require the Office of Science to carry out a program for the production of isotopes, including the development of techniques to produce isotopes, that the Secretary determines are needed for research, medical, industrial, or other purposes.
- Applied R&D. Authorize $2.56 billion annually in fiscal year 2017 for DOE’s applied R&D programs, including:
- $1.19 billion for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy;
- $605 million for the Office of Fossil Energy;
- $504.6 million each year for the Office of Nuclear Energy, including for the design of nuclear reactors, the development of small modular reactors, and other innovative or experimental technologies; and
- $140 million for ARPA-E.
- Energy Frontier Research Centers / Energy Innovation Hubs. Reauthorize these programs that promote academic and private sectors partnerships with DOE science.
- Lab commercialization and tech transfer. Authorize DOE national laboratories to use technology transfer funds “to carry out early-stage and pre-commercial technology demonstration activities”, and support for public-private partnerships for commercialization.
Both Senate and House bills include nearly identical language intended to support advanced nuclear reactor designs and technologies, drawn from the “Nuclear Innovation Capabilities Act,” which would:
- National Reactor Innovation Center. Establish a National Reactor Innovation Center “to enable the testing and demonstration of reactor concepts to be proposed and funded by the private sector”;
- High-performance computing. Create a program to develop and evaluate new reactor technology through high-performance computation modeling and simulation; and
- Reactor-based fast neutron source. Require DOE to “determine the mission need for a versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility” and develop a detailed plan for the establishment of such a facility.
Among other science-relevant provisions, the Senate and House also have distinct critical minerals titles that take separate approaches to accelerating the development of critical minerals. The title in Senate bill is drawn from the “American Mineral Security Act” while the title in the House bill is drawn from the “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act.”
The Senate bill’s critical minerals title would:
- Critical mineral designation. Require the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a process to determine whether to designate minerals as “critical” based on their importance and potential for supply disruptions.
- Critical mineral assessment. Require the Interior Department to quantify known critical mineral resources and assess undiscovered critical mineral resources.
- Critical mineral permit streamlining. Require the Energy and Agriculture Departments to streamline permitting for critical mineral production on federal lands.
- Helium. Assert a new framework for helium exploration rights, by granting a right of first refusal to private developers to explore, develop and produce helium on federal lands.
The House-amended bill’s critical minerals title would:
- Critical mineral mines as infrastructure. Define domestic mines that provide strategic and critical minerals as an “infrastructure project” as described in Presidential Order Improving Performance of Federal Permitting and Review of Infrastructure Projects, dated March 22, 2012.
- Management of mineral exploration permits. Require the federal government to appoint a project lead to ensure that agencies minimize delays and set and adhere to timelines and schedules for completion of the permitting process.
- Streamlining federal environmental review. Provide for a streamlined process for fulfilling National Environmental Policy Act requirements for a permit.
- Maximizing extraction of minerals. Require the federal government “to maximize the development of the mineral resource, while mitigating environmental impacts, so that more of the mineral resource can be brought to the marketplace.”
While the legislative path forward for the energy bill conference is still uncertain, and a likely foreshortened September session could cut into Congress’ work time, Murkowski is committed to seeing the bill through to final passage this session:
We are working as quickly and aggressively as possible. … I’m going to take advantage of every single day that we have here and push our staff and our members to be engaged and working on a product.
Should it reach the president’s desk and receive a signature, it would be the first overhaul of the nation’s energy laws since 2007.