House Bill Would Cut Clean Energy and Efficiency Programs by 40 Percent

Appropriations bill puts renewable energy and efficiency funding about $1 billion below current levels, roughly equaling dollars doled out in 2005

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.)
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), one of the 48 members of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition opposing the 2012 energy and water appropriations bill/Credit: Asia Society, Flickr

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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.

“That’s what you need for energy technologies to be working and seamlessly connected,” Milford said, adding that DOE has wisely signed a memorandum of understanding agreement with the Defense Department to give ARPA-E room to grow. “To deal with issues such as market demand, DOE has to expand its portfolio of options and essentially create customers.”

He emphasized that eventually DOE should form ARPA-E partnerships with states because development agencies at that level are looking for niche strategies to boost the clean energy policies they have in place.

“It’s not ARPA-E’s fault or anybody else’s that we’re not there yet,” Milford said. “The clean energy industry is young at 10 to 20 years old when compared to a fossil fuels industry that’s more than 100 years old.”

GAO: National Strategy Necessary

In the midst of this season’s budget travails, the Government Accountability Office has issued a new report recommending what likely seems obvious to even casual observers of congressional politics — the need to replace a piecemeal approach to climate and energy with a national plan.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released the 90-page report by the investigative arm of Congress on Monday. The somewhat clunky title is “Climate Change: Improvements Needed to Clarify National Priorities and Better Align Them with Federal Funding Decisions.”

To get there, the GAO spells out a two-step solution that is probably easier written on paper than actually accomplished.

First, federal authorities need to set clear strategic climate change priorities that identify specific roles and responsibilities of key federal entities involved in the enterprise.

Second, those same authorities have to assess how effective they are now at not only defining and reporting federal climate change funding but also lining up that funding with agreed-upon priorities. Those practices will have to be polished so Congress and the public can fully grasp how the government spends money designated for climate change.

The trick is that before embarking on step one, entities that fall under the executive branch such as the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, the Office and Management and Budget, and Office of Science and Technology Policy have to consult with Congress and collaborate with relevant federal agencies and interagency coordinating bodies.

And that looks to be a daunting challenge if those tasked with GAO’s recommendations refer to the baffling maze of a chart on page 13 of the report. Authors of the GAO report refer to federal climate change program as complex and crosscutting.

“This report shows the significant work the United States government is already taking to understand and address climate change while creating new jobs and industries in America,” said Markey, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“So far this has been accomplished with little national leadership. In these challenging budgetary times, we need to make sure funding matches national priorities. This GAO report shows us we still have work to do.”

Assessment Follows Party Line

Republican leaders had nothing but high praise for the way they reshaped President Obama’s original budget request. Such “smart and significant” spending reductions were necessary to programs with “massive and unnecessary increases,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky said.

Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey agreed that their handiwork “clearly shows that strong fiscal discipline, a strong national defense and a strong economy, can be achieved together.”

But neither of those assessments lined up with perspectives from the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. Co-chair Reps. Jay Inslee of Washington and Steve Israel of New York, organized the caucus in January 2009 to advance policies government-wide that address clean energy innovation, environmental protection and climate change.

Coalition member Rep. Paul Tonka, who has introduced legislation to redirect subsidies now designated for oil companies into clean energy innovation and manufacturing, frowned upon the GOP approach.

“We cannot cut our way to number one,” the New York Democrat said about falling behind China and Germany. “If we are to stay competitive as a nation in the long term, we must invest in new technologies, clean energy and job creation. This bill fails all three tests.”