Lawmakers approve more money for Energy Department than Trump wanted — again

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, October 1, 2018

President Trump, flanked by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to his right, announced the approval of a permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline in 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, file)

Lawmakers and President Trump only recently settled on a package to fund most of the government through December, which the president is expected to sign this morning.

But funding for the Department of Energy for the next 12 months — almost a record in Washington — has already been agreed to by boosting funds for the agency. Earlier this month, Congress sent the White House a spending package that boosts funding for the Department of Energy by $974 million to a total of $35.5 billion.

That uptick for one of the federal government’s biggest backers of scientific research amounts to another bipartisan rejection of deep budget cuts called for by President Trump around efforts to develop alternative  energy production seen as central to addressing climate change. Despite the discrepancy, Trump signed the department’s budget into law late last week.

Since Trump took office, the head of the White House’s Office of Budget and Management, fiscal hawk Mick Mulvaney, sent budget proposals to Congress that attempted to shift responsibility for developing new energy technologies away from the federal government and toward the private sector.

“It’s an ideologically based view that the marketplace will undertake whatever investments needed in innovation and that there there’s no need for a large government role here,” said Joseph Hezir, former chief finance officer at the Energy Department under Barack Obama and now principal at the Energy Futures Initiative.

But as it has done in years past, both Republicans and Democrats rejected the Trump administration’s suggestions for reining in spending on research across the country at national laboratories — often found in lawmakers in charge of doling out cash to states and districts.

Trump’s budget shop, for example, proposed slashing funding for the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy down to $696 million, a 66 percent cut from the 2017 budget. Congress instead increased funding for that office, known for research into solar and wind energy, to $2.38 billion.

Even more drastically, the White House wanted to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Well liked by members of both parties in Congress, that technology incubator backs projects too risky for private investors. Congress bumped its budget up to $366 million.

Congress made its intentions clear with APRA-E in a report on the bill. The administration “shall not use any appropriated funds to plan or execute the termination of ARPA–E,” it read.

Even Energy Secretary Rick Perry praised ARPA-E as “a good return on investment for the American taxpayers’ dollars” during a hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee in March.

Going forward, the worry among alternative energy advocates is not the whims of Congress but the vagaries of the economy. When economic growth slows and tax revenues fall, appropriators will look to tighten belts, and the Energy Department “is not going to be immune to that downward pressure that’s going to affect pretty much everything across government,” Hezir said.

Despite its popularity, ARPA-E does not receive as much money as intended when it was originally conceived during the George W. Bush administration when the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommended an eventual annual budget of $1 billion.

“It’s doing great work at $300 million,” said Ellen Williams, a University of Maryland professor who ran ARPA-E between 2014 and 2017. “It could work even better at $1 billion.”

But in the current political climate, Williams added she is “just grateful that it is continuing to get funding at a substantial level.”