WASHINGTON—Even though Republicans have vowed an "all-of-the-above" approach to America's energy future, Democrats are accusing them of clinging to a narrow, antiquated, hydrocarbon-heavy past.
Members of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition are furious about a 2012 energy and water appropriations bill that they claim shortchanges President Obama's efforts at innovation and competition in favor of an addiction to oil, coal and natural gas.
"Now is the worst possible moment to slash funding for the research and development of sustainable energy technologies," coalition member Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said about the $30.6 billion bill that advanced out of the House Appropriations Committee last Wednesday.
"At a time when our economy is already fragile, abandoning scientific research would cause the United States to lose even more high-tech jobs to our foreign competitors."
Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona was the sole Republican who joined 19 Democrats in opposing the bill that passed on a 26-20 vote. The full House will be considering the measure, one of a dozen sweeping federal spending bills, after Independence Day.
On the energy front, this version of the bill snips $1.9 billion from the White House request for investments in energy efficiency research, renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal, fuel-conserving vehicles, weatherization, biomass and other programs. That's more than 40 percent below current funding levels.
Energy insiders, however, doubt the Senate will approve such draconian paring of clean energy enterprise.
Overall, the sprawling bill slices a total of $5.9 billion from President Obama's request for the budget year beginning in October. Those cuts put funding about $1 billion below current levels, roughly equaling dollars doled out in 2005.
"The ... funding bill is another glaring example of the widening gap between Republican rhetoric and reality," said Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, one of 48 members of the coalition. "We need a new American energy policy that will lower prices for families, reduce our reliance on dirty, foreign energy and increase our energy independence."
Nitty-Gritty of House Bill
Overall, this appropriations legislation is designed to provide annual funding for the various agencies and programs under the Department of Energy, including the National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and various regional water and power authorities.
Coalition members are most alarmed that the GOP engineered a bill that slashes close to $500 million from DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). That leaves the office with just 40 percent of the amount Obama asked for when he presented his budget back in February.
Briefly, the White House 2012 budget request for EERE programs is the largest ever. It rings in at a total of $3.2 billion, which is bordering on 11 percent of the total DOE budget. That's significant because it's a jump of $983 million — or 44 percent — above 2010 appropriations.
In addition, the legislation increases funding for DOE's Fossil Energy Office by $32 million while decreasing designated dollars for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) by $80 million. Energy Department Secretary Steven Chu modeled ARPA-E after a similar program at the Department of Defense to support breakthroughs by clean energy entrepreneurs.
Obama had asked that the chronically underfunded ARPA-E receive about $650 million next year. The GOP House bill would jeopardize the relatively new initiative designed to fund early-stage innovation projects that are deemed riskiest and most transformative.
As well, the president had called for lopping the fossil office by $417 million, 44 percent below 2010 appropriations. Savings for the president's budget figure of $520 million would have come from peeling away money for fossil energy research and development, as well as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Slashing ARPA-E Illogical
Lew Milford, founder and president of the Montpelier, Vt.-based nonprofit Clean Energy Group complimented Chu for recognizing ARPA-E as an avenue for expanding a nascent industry.
"We're cutting off our nose to spite our face," Milford told SolveClimate News in an interview about ARPA-E's rocky funding record. "ARPA-E is one of the few public programs that focuses on energy innovation. Without it, we won't get the big bang of technology benefits to produce jobs and economic benefits in the long run."
The last actual appropriation for ARPA-E was $389 million for fiscal year 2009.
DARPA, the military program Chu is mimicking, is unusual because it serves a customer that will buy at any cost, Milford said. But that freedom within the Department of Defense supports a unique model that allows an idea to morph into a prototype that is deployed throughout branches of the military before spilling over into the civilian marketplace.