Senate panel OKs energy bill that differs from Trump, House

Source: Christa Marshall, Ariel Wittenberg and Sam Mintz, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, July 21, 2017

The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced an energy and water bill this afternoon that diverts sharply from the priorities of House lawmakers and President Trump.

Approved by a 30-1 vote, the $38.4 billion measure would provide record levels of funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which Trump and a competing House bill would eliminate. The bill also directs the Army Corps of Engineers to hand over a controversial report on Asian carp within 30 days of its passage.

The bill would provide record levels for DOE’s Office of Science and provide higher funding for applied energy programs than called for by the administration.

“I am especially pleased this bill recognizes the importance of the Army Corps of Engineers and federally supported research,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, added that he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) worked together “under very challenging fiscal constraints this year the same way we always have — in a fair and accommodating manner — with the goal of drafting a bipartisan bill that prioritizes spending and reduces waste.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was the sole “no” vote because of the bill’s plans to shut down the controversial DOE-sponsored mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in his state. The facility, which was born out of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, would fabricate plutonium into fuel to be used in commercial nuclear reactors (E&E Daily, May 24).

A manager’s package that passed by voice vote encourages the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to prioritize public engagement as it permits and reviews energy infrastructure projects like pipelines. The nonbinding language echoes the sentiment, though not the legal force, of legislation introduced in the House and Senate by Virginia lawmakers (E&E Daily, June 9).

The manager’s package also includes an amendment from Alexander and Feinstein to expend appropriated funds for critical research on environmental science. An amendment from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) calls on DOE to utilize investments through existing “regional capabilities” such as universities.

Like the House plan, the bill would eliminate DOE’s loan guarantee program, although it provides funding for administrative expenses.

A failed amendment offered by Feinstein would have restored the loan program. Despite her objections, Feinstein called it a “good bill” overall.

“While I don’t support all of the cuts in this bill, it’s my hope that both parties will be able to negotiate a budget agreement later this year to restore funding for many of those programs,” Feinstein said.

The measure would provide ARPA-E, DOE’s innovation research arm, a record level of $330 million, up from $306 million.

DOE’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs — which Trump wanted to slash by 70 percent — would receive $1.9 billion. That is lower than the $2.1 billion provided last year but far above the $636 million called for in Trump’s proposal. Funding would continue for the weatherization assistance program, which was also targeted for elimination.

Fossil energy research and development would receive $573 million, down from $668 million. Environmental cleanup and nuclear energy research would see increases (E&E News PM, July 18).

The legislation differs from the House in eliminating the U.S. contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a multinational project in France to demonstrate fusion at scale. Alexander said that cut would save approximately $50 million.

Much of the hearing focused on the MOX facility, which the Government Accountability Office has said could take as much as $12 billion and 30 years to complete. Both Trump and President Obama have tried to kill the project.

“The project is vastly over budget and unlikely to succeed. There are alternatives that are faster and cheaper for disposing of plutonium,” said Feinstein, referring to the proposed “dilute and dispose” method, which involves diluting plutonium with an inert agent and disposing of it in a geologic repository.

But as Graham pointed out, House appropriators as well as the Armed Services committees in both chambers have voted to continue construction.

“I believe it is 70 percent complete,” said Graham. “These estimates that it’s going to take $12 billion more to complete is beyond bogus.”

He said the contractor has predicted it will take $3.5 billion to finish construction and another $1 billion to get the facility operational.

Graham said he plans to submit an amendment when the bill reaches the Senate floor to restore funding for MOX.

The bill also includes funding for an interim nuclear waste storage facility, while leaving out money requested by Trump to resume licensing for the contentious permanent waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (E&E Daily, July 19).

Water policy

The bill would direct the Army Corps to release a study about how to control movement of Asian carp upstream into the Great Lakes basin.

Known as the Brandon Road Study, the $8.2 million report was initiated by the Army Corps in 2015 to assess whether it could use the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, a chokepoint on the Illinois River system, to control the fish’s movement.

The draft report was originally scheduled to be released in March, but the Army Corps unexpectedly announced it was indefinitely delaying the plan for “further coordination,” in a move that has rankled lawmakers from the region (E&E News PM, March 2).

The committee report on the bill also directs the Army Corps to submit quarterly reports to both the Senate and House Appropriations committees on efforts to stop the Asian carp’s spread.

The report also directs the Army Corps, Bureau of Reclamation and FERC to brief the Senate Appropriations Committee on “lessons learned” from the February evacuation of 188,000 residents living downstream of the Oroville Dam after its main flood control spillway cracked. The report requests the briefing within 90 days of an investigative report on the incident being completed.

Additionally, the report urges the Army Corps to study a proposed deep-draft port in Nome, Alaska, that takes into account the national security reasons for having a deep port in the region and directs the agency to expedite its validation of the Central Everglades Planning Project.

The report also directs the Army Corps to complete implementation guidance for its beneficial use of the dredged material pilot program and to consider the environmental impacts on oyster reefs when working on navigation or coastal restoration projects in areas where oyster reefs exist.

The Senate bill will also provide the Army Corps with $375 million for Mississippi River flood control-related projects. It would fund the Reclamation’s California Bay-Delta Restoration Program at $37 million and the Central Valley Project at $41.3 million.

Senators also approved a number of Army-Corps-related amendments in a manager’s package. One directs the Army Corps to provide sufficient funding for Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration.

The manager’s amendment also directs Reclamation to budget accordingly for American Indian water rights settlements included in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.

The Senate bill notably differs from its House counterpart in that it does not include a provision to exempt the Trump administration’s repeal of the Clean Water Rule from the Administrative Procedure Act.