Agency spars with critics over leaked budget plan

Source: Christa Marshall and Hannah Northey, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, February 2, 2018

The Energy Department is defending its record on clean energy research after a leaked budget document sparked Democratic backlash and congressional calls for an investigation.

After declining to comment on the leaked text, a DOE spokeswoman said skeptics of the Trump administration’s dedication to an all-of-the-above approach should simply “look at the record.”

“Last year, the Energy Department awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to solar and wind energy. Though it may not fit into the narrative of the environmental lobby and their pundits, the truth is that Secretary Perry believes that there is a role for all fuels — including renewables — in our energy mix,” said Shaylyn Hynes.

The leaked draft, obtained by E&E News and first reported by The Washington Post, shows a proposed decrease in staff and deep funding cuts to DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The EERE budget would be slashed 72 percent below current levels for fiscal 2019, to $575 million (E&E News PM, Jan. 31). The administration is set to release its latest spending blueprint Feb. 12.

Democrats and environmental groups seized on the news to blast the White House for jeopardizing jobs and low-carbon technologies.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, warned in a statement that slashing funding for such promising research would devastate a major job creator.

On Twitter, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who has co-sponsored multiple efficiency bills in Congress, called the cuts “reckless.”

Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Alan Lowenthal of California went a step further, citing the DOE cuts in calling on Gene Dodaro, the head of the Government Accountability Office, to probe the competitiveness of the current federal bidding system for leasing land.

Grijalva, ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, and Lowenthal, ranking member on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, also asked for a review and status of thousands of unused permits for drilling on federal land.

“Republicans insist we’re treating Big Oil unfairly,” Grijalva said. “These reports would provide much-needed context.”

Under the leaked DOE budget, the agency’s weatherization program and state energy grants would be zeroed out entirely. The weatherization program, which supports efficiency improvements for low-income families, is currently funded at about $225 million.

With the exception of geothermal energy technologies and advanced manufacturing, every program office within EERE would face steeper cuts than requested last year by the White House, according to the document.

The solar and bioenergy offices, for instance, would be funded at about 35 percent lower. The wind office request would be more than 20 percent lower.

It’s unclear whether the leaked numbers are in flux, and such steep cuts would likely be rejected on Capitol Hill in light of the fiscal 2018 appropriations process.

Last year, the White House also proposed axing DOE’s weatherization program and state energy grants completely, but Congress is moving forward with keeping the money.

The figures do signal, however, that the Office of Management and Budget, under fiscal hawk Mick Mulvaney, is playing a lead role.

According to sources, DOE suggested higher numbers for efficiency and renewable programs but OMB dismissed those suggestions.

Separately, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) led a letter today to Trump urging “robust funding” for the Weatherization Assistance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which assists families with heating costs.

“Cold weather and winter storms across the United States have once again highlighted the importance of affordable access to home energy as a matter of health and safety for more than six million low-income households, children, veterans, seniors, and Indian tribes,” states the letter, which was signed by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and more than 40 Democratic senators.