Key House appropriator questions clean energy research push

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A top House appropriator said today that the Obama administration’s bid to double spending on clean energy research over five years may come at the expense of power sources favored by the Republican majority.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who leads the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, told Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz he was “disappointed” the Mission Innovation proposal included in the fiscal 2017 budget request “favors” the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Compared with last year’s enacted spending levels, Simpson said that under the budget request, “fossil energy remains relatively flat, nuclear energy gets a 7 percent cut, domestic fusion gets a 90 percent cut and EERE gets a 49 percent increase.”

“The math doesn’t seem to add up,” he told Moniz during a lengthy subcommittee hearing this morning. “This isn’t an all-of-the-above initiative, this is another attempt by the department to increase EERE accounts.”

Moniz noted the budget request includes funds to boost innovation spread across a variety of programs, citing tax breaks to boost carbon capture and storage technology, as well as a shift in emphasis in the Office of Fossil Energy, which he said have been tailored to respond to the viability of proposed demonstration projects.

“We’ve reoriented … for example, in the budget proposing to move forward with a set of smallish but important pilot projects to look at more novel capture approaches that may significantly reduce costs,” Moniz said. “So I think there is actually is a heightened focus on innovation within that budget.”

Lawmakers have been generally supportive of the Mission Innovation proposal, unveiled by President Obama last year during the Paris climate talks (E&E Daily, Feb. 10).

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates is also a proponent of the plan, which calls for clean energy research and development to jump from $6.4 billion in fiscal 2016 to $12.8 billion in 2021.

But while many GOP lawmakers are open to spending more for energy research, Republicans have repeatedly tussled with the spending levels steered to renewables, fossil energy and nuclear power throughout Obama’s presidency.

Simpson signaled that he’s not opposed to the proposal, but rather wants to maintain balance among energy sources at DOE.

“And I like EERE,” he told Moniz. “This is not being critical of EERE, but not at the expense of other basic science and applied energy research. If the goal is to double clean energy research, why don’t all Mission Innovation funding accounts receive proportional increases?”

Moniz suggested that some funds appropriated to EERE may not be “restricted to EERE subjects,” but Simpson disagreed.

“I would tell you, if they’re parked in EERE, and there’s no authorizing legislation for them specifically, then they are subject to the restraints of EERE,” Simpson said. “There would have to be separate language.”

Moniz replied, “Well, that would be something we’d love to work with you on.”

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Moniz said he’s had largely positive feedback from lawmakers on the Mission Innovation proposal, which he called an administration priority.

“On the one hand, you heard the obvious budgetary constraints, but on the other hand, I think you heard also a lot of basic support for the idea, and frankly I have not been hearing negative reactions to this focus on innovation,” he said. “Quite the contrary. But we’ve got a budget challenge, so we’ll see.”

Pressed on whether the administration is concerned about meeting the targets contained in U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Moniz sounded a confident tone that the plan will ultimately be upheld, despite the Supreme Court’s recent stay.

“That’s not a judgment on it, and we remain pretty confident that it will be resolved,” he said. “The schedule in the Clean Power Plan, both the schedule for the state’s final plans, 2018, and the actual implementation, 2022, let’s just say anticipated that there may be some legal challenges made, which would probably end up in the Supreme Court, so I don’t think that’s a surprise.”