Feinstein: ‘We’re between a rock and hard place’ on budget

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, March 11, 2016

A top Democratic appropriator Wednesday said President Obama’s plan to double clean energy research spending as part of his broader climate plan “is going to be a most difficult task,” considering current budget constraints.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that what we “are responsible for right now … we cannot do based on this president’s budget” because there is little likelihood of having sufficient money to fund it.

Obama’s Mission Innovation initiative envisions doubling clean energy research in conjunction with other countries and investors, like Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates. Feinstein praised Moniz’s work at climate talks in Paris last year and said Mission Innovation should be a priority, provided an increase in allocated funds.

But she added, “I am really very concerned, because … we’re between a rock and a hard place. We do not yet have an allocation, and yet there are a number of conflicts within this budget.”

Speaking at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, Feinstein said she was concerned that the budget zeroes out funding for uranium cleanup and proposes cuts to the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management, despite their role in protecting infrastructure against extreme weather.

The budget assumes that uranium cleanup will be a mandatory program, but there “is no indication that is going to happen,” said Feinstein. “We will have to appropriate money for those activities.”

Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) also criticized DOE’s budget request, saying the president’s plan to double clean energy research “comes at the expense of other resources and agencies.” Feinstein said she agreed with most of his remarks.

However, Moniz reiterated that a push on technology development is “long overdue,” considering support to more than double clean energy research and development funding from groups like the American Energy Innovation Council, whose members include Gates and the CEO of General Electric Co., among others. “These initiatives will drive innovation essential for economic growth enabled by affordable and reliable energy, for energy security, for U.S. competitiveness and for a transition to a low carbon energy future,” he testified.

Much of the hearing was focused on environmental waste cleanup. Moniz said the department would welcome private storage options for nuclear waste, noting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may consider an application this year for that option.

Alexander told Moniz he was on “shaky ground” over cleanup plans for uranium enrichment sites. The department is proposing to take $674 million from an old fund tied to the once government-owned U.S. Enrichment Corp., a move Congress would have to approve (E&E Daily, March 1).

“The bottom line is, if we can’t use that fund, there are zero dollars in your budget for cleaning up uranium enrichment sites in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. Isn’t that correct?” Alexander asked Moniz.

According to the Government Accountability Office, Congress authorized the USEC Fund for two purposes. GAO has determined that both of those purposes have been fulfilled. Alexander pressed for answers on why DOE has not yet asked the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would have to authorize the new purpose, to do so.

“I don’t want to get onto shaky ground in terms of what is needed,” Moniz said. “My impression is that certainly the Congress could go forward with — ”

Alexander interrupted: “With all respect for you, and you know I have a lot for you, I think you’re already on shaky ground here.”

Moniz said the department would be forthcoming with a proposal for authorizing legislation on the issue, if necessary.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) also pressed Moniz on proposed cuts for nuclear waste cleanup at the Hanford Site, which she said were “really troubling.” The fiscal 2017 budget, for example, is proposing a $104.7 million cut.

Moniz said, “We are trying to make sure we address the priorities, including those areas that we think have the highest risk, which especially is liquid waste.” After a long exchange with Murray, he added, “Let’s work together” and “come back with a plan.”

As he has done in the past, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pushed for someone to be fired over DOE’s plan to pull the plug on the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site (E&E Daily, Feb. 24).

Alexander has long been supportive of increasing funding for the national labs and energy research but wants to do so by eliminating subsidies for mature industries like oil and gas and wind. In a back-and-forth with Moniz, he pointed out that the administration could find billions of dollars in R&D with such a phaseout. “What about the wind?” he asked.

Referring to renewable tax credits extended last year, Moniz said continuing an incentive for wind “is very important.” He added, “It’s the combination of deployment and technology that right now is helping drive costs down dramatically.”

The administration’s support for carbon capture and sequestration funding also popped up several times. The administration is proposing a $32 million reduction in fossil energy research, as well as new tax credits for the technology.

It also is planning to yank $240 million from a planned carbon capture project in Texas that has been in the works for years — the Texas Clean Energy Project (E&E Daily, March 7). The developers of that project, which would capture the majority of emissions at a large coal plant, said they still plan to move ahead this year. If not, the money would be used in the fiscal 2017 budget for tests of advanced CCS technology at smaller pilots.

“We think this is a good time to really start pushing” on next-generation technologies, Moniz said under questioning from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). After the hearing, he said the department thinks the Texas project is a good one but will “move forward” on other projects if milestones are not met.

On a lighter note, Feinstein — whose state has been devastated by drought — said language in the DOE budget on desalination was confusing and hard to follow. “Why does your staff write budgets like this?” she asked.

“We will send you a white paper,” Moniz said.

Reporter Hannah Hess contributed.