Moniz hears rising skepticism about Mission Innovation

Source: Pola Lem, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz sought to stabilize support behind a key funding program for clean energy research yesterday as he appeared before increasingly skeptical Republican lawmakers.

Moniz defended Mission Innovation, a 20-nation initiative set during the Paris climate agreement, against criticism about its goal to double clean energy investment in the United States over the next five years.

“Mission Innovation is long overdue,” Moniz said while testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

Comments on the program fell largely along party lines, with voices from the left praising the department’s support of renewables as those on the right expressed concern about its emphasis on clean energy over fossil fuels.

But opposition appears to be growing for the program, which is designed to leverage billions in private-sector dollars from a group led by Bill Gates and other investors willing to gamble on risky clean energy technologies.

Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) described it as a heavy-handed approach by the Obama administration. The White House has called for a 21 percent increase in discretionary funding on energy for fiscal 2017 — an amount Republicans say is more than the budget can handle.

Whitfield said the government is funneling money into clean energy at the expense of consumers and businesses.

“Almost everywhere in this budget, we see DOE trying to expand its role and impose its own preferences on the private sector,” Whitfield said.

The White House’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal calls for more money to renewables, with $2.9 billion for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a 40 percent increase over 2016 levels.

Meanwhile, funding for fossil energy programs would shrink 26.5 percent to $638 million, with $600 million for fossil energy research and development — $240 million of which is available from last year’s balance, according to a brief compiled by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Upton: ‘breakthroughs’ are needed

Those priorities drew sharp criticism from the panel’s Republicans.

In one of the hearing’s more heated moments, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) pressed Moniz about his top priority this year.

“The No. 1 issue is Mission Innovation,” said Moniz, after some back and forth.

Mullin responded, “Is that across board or is that just for renewables?”

“It’s across the board,” said Moniz, stressing the importance of various energy approaches, including fossil fuels and alternatives like wind and solar.

Mullin’s question echoed those of other members, who worried that the pursuit of green energy was upstaging fossil fuels on DOE’s list of priorities. Multiple lawmakers suggested that the federal government is spending too much to develop green energy.

The skepticism cast a shadow over Moniz’s optimistic take on events earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Moniz said feedback from lawmakers on the Mission Innovation proposal has been mostly supportive (E&ENews PM, March 1).

“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 told reporters Tuesday. “Quite the contrary. But we’ve got a budget challenge, so we’ll see.”

Some representatives sounded open to considering the program.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the full committee, said he was “interested in learning more” about Mission Innovation.

“Continued breakthroughs in the way that we produce, transmit and consume energy are needed in order to meet 21st-century threats, be it from cyber, severe weather, physical attacks on our infrastructure,” Upton said.