Smith dismisses tech spending as wish list for cronies

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee slammed the Department of Energy’s budget request yesterday as “a wish list for the White House’s political allies.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said large proposed increases for renewables and sustainable transportation do not reflect congressional priorities.

The administration is proposing a 21 percent increase in clean energy research and development as part of Mission Innovation, a plan to address climate change in conjunction with other countries by speeding up technology development.

“The president’s budget does not reflect current constraints on federal spending or supports a balanced, all-of-the-above energy strategy,” said Smith during a hearing on DOE’s fiscal 2017 request, which touched on everything from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s private emails to cybersecurity.

Even though he criticised many of the budget’s provisions, particularly those tied to Mission Innovation, Smith praised proposed increases for the Office of Science and other DOE programs, and a “good working relationship” with Moniz.

The comments highlight the ongoing challenge for the administration in seeking to double clean energy R&D over five years in a Republican-controlled Congress.

During the past two weeks, many GOP members have criticized flat spending levels or proposed cuts for fossil or nuclear energy in DOE’s $32.5 billion request. Some Democrats are also criticizing proposed cuts to various programs, despite strong support for the administration’s climate plan.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), for example, praised Mission Innovation and Moniz’s work in guaranteeing “a brighter future in the face of the growing threat of climate change.” But she simultaneously raised concerns about the fossil energy and fusion budgets.

“The Fusion Energy Sciences budget within the Office of Science seems to baffle me every year,” said Lofgren, noting a 9 percent proposed cut. “It is the only program within the Office of Science receiving a cut, and there does not seem to be much justification provided.”

Moniz noted that if the United States continues participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, it would result in a future “significant increase in the scale of the fusion budget.”

DOE is planning to send a report to Congress by early May on future U.S. participation in ITER, an international project among 35 nations to develop the first device to maintain fusion for long periods of time.

Carbon capture

Along with the fusion cuts, Smith, Lofgren and other lawmakers raised concerns about the administration’s plan to yank funding for Summit Power Group’s Texas Clean Energy Project, a planned coal plant in Texas that would capture the majority of its CO2 emissions if constructed.

The administration is proposing to repurpose $240 million slated for the project to smaller test pilot ventures of innovative carbon capture technologies, like chemical looping.

“By all accounts, you are doing this with virtually no warning provided to either the [Texas Clean Energy Project] or those of us in Congress who have been such strong supporters of it over the years,” said ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) in opening remarks.

She joined in signing a letter — showcased at the hearing — from the Texas congressional delegation to Moniz urging support for the project.

Moniz said DOE is supporting three other major carbon capture projects, including a separate one in Texas that is under construction. “We remain committed to having a strong program” with carbon capture, he said.

With regard to the Texas Clean Energy Project, “the fact of the matter is … critical milestones are way overdue and are still not met,” he said. The project has been under development for years and has faced numerous delays.

But in their letter, lawmakers said DOE failed to provide notice to the project’s developers that “renegotiating milestones could result in the total loss of funding.”

Last month, TCEP’s developers called DOE’s repurposing funds irrelevant because they were planning to achieve financial closing before Oct. 1. Yesterday, they joined groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council in sending Moniz a separate letter — which lawmakers also showcased at the hearing — urging support for the project.

‘Complicated dynamics’

Moniz has made several appearances on Capitol Hill to defend the agency’s budget request. Under questioning from Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) about the need to double clean energy R&D to address climate change, Moniz said the United States had a special role in leadership internationally.

“If we fall down in meeting in our objective … I think that would have significant deleterious consequences,” he said referring to U.S. climate goals outlined last year at negotiations in Paris.

Global efforts to reduce carbon are creating trillion-dollar markets, he said. “We want to keep our innovation edge to take advantage of those markets,” he said.

When asked by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) why DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy should get a higher percentage increase than some other programs to achieve those goals, Moniz cited “complicated dynamics.”

“But again … obviously we’re here to discuss what … is the right mix. … [W]e do want to increase energy R&D, and we’d like the increases to be weighted towards the earlier stages,” Moniz said.

Smith also questioned Moniz about a recent incident in which a DOE employee was removed from her position after answering questions from Science Committee staff about the Low Dose Radiation Research Program.

Smith cited a recent letter from Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) outlining committee concerns about the employee’s situation. Smith called for Moniz to turn over more documents related to the issue, which he said raise concerns of an “intimidation factor.”

There was a settlement with the employee in question, who still works for DOE, Moniz said. “I am committed to providing documents as much as we can,” within constraints outlined by DOE’s counsel, Moniz said.

Lofgren jumped to Moniz’s defense, noting thousands of documents sent to the committee. “I wouldn’t want people to think that you haven’t delivered boatloads of information,” Lofgren said.