Spending bill boosts ARPA-E, spurns Yucca Mountain

Source: Christa Marshall and Sam Mintz, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, March 23, 2018

The massive spending package unveiled yesterday by Congress ignores President Trump’s budget request for steep cuts at the Department of Energy, as well as his attempt to revive the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project.

Instead of eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE’s innovation arm, the package increases funding to a record level of $353 million. The Weatherization Assistance Program, which Trump also wanted to kill, would get a more than $20 million boost to $248 million. The deal keeps state energy grants and the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program intact.

It also would increase funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which Trump wanted to slash by more than half.

“The amount of funding we provided this year demonstrates Congress’ commitment to basic energy research, building and maintaining our nation’s water infrastructure, and strengthening our national security by maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee with jurisdiction over energy and water.

Yucca

The bill denies the administration’s request for funding at DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume licensing for Yucca Mountain, a contentious proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

The omission, while not unexpected, is a big win for the state’s congressional delegation, which has fought the project tooth and nail for decades.

It is a particularly important victory for Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who is facing a tough re-election campaign and has touted a lack of progress on Yucca Mountain as a major achievement. The House has been more inclined to approve funding and authorization for the project, but Heller’s influence with the Republican majority in the Senate has meant the project has met more resistance in that chamber.

“I worked to ensure that funding to revive the Yucca Mountain project was excluded from this spending bill, and I’m pleased that Nevada’s message was heard,” Heller said in a statement.

A Washington Post roundup called Heller one of the top winners in the bill and suggested he could use it as a talking point approaching November. “The ads write themselves,” the Post wrote.

For DOE, which has pledged to resume licensing on the project after it was halted during the Obama administration, there is not much it can do now to advance other than wait for the fight to start all over again in consideration of the fiscal 2019 budget, which is already underway on Capitol Hill.

The bill also includes funding for cleanup at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio, a key provision that will allow DOE to suspend its uranium sales program, which in turn could free up President Trump’s nominee to lead the agency’s Office of Environmental Management (E&E News PM, March 20).

Applied office boost

The package would increase EERE’s funding from $2.1 billion to $2.3 billion, with a boost for nearly every EERE program. The Trump administration had called for EERE’s budget to be reduced to less than $700 million, with a focus on early-stage research.

Under the plan, solar energy would rise from $207 million to $241 million, while the geothermal and water power offices would see increases of more than $10 million each.

An accompanying budget report directs DOE to fully fund Energy Star at U.S. EPA, which sets voluntary standards for various products. It calls for DOE to do a joint review with U.S. EPA on the 2009 memorandum of understanding on Energy Star, to analyze “whether the expected efficiencies for home appliance products have been achieved.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been weighing changes to Energy Star as part of a broader reauthorization of DOE (E&E Daily, Nov. 8, 2017).

Like EERE, the Office of Nuclear Energy would see its funding increased by nearly 20 percent under the bill’s levels. DOE’s fossil energy programs would see a 9 percent jump.

Fossil energy research and development would rise from $668 million to $726 million. Within that, carbon storage research would rise from $95 million to about $98 million.

At the Office of Science, which oversees the majority of the national labs, funding would rise by more than $800 million to a record $6.3 billion. That includes a $163 million increase for advanced scientific computing research, a priority of the Trump administration.

Congress called for $122 million to be spent on the United States’ contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a multinational project under construction in France to demonstrate fusion at scale. In his most recent budget plan, Trump asked for $75 million.

The package was a big win for a range of environmental and clean energy groups that had slammed Trump’s request as detrimental for climate change and U.S. competitiveness.

In a statement, Ben Evans, vice president of government affairs and communications for the Alliance to Save Energy, thanked senators on the group’s board of advisers — including Sens. Alexander, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) — for pushing for funding.

“It’s been a long time coming, but Congress got it right with this bill,” said Evans.

The American Energy Innovation Council, which includes Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and other CEOs, said “members of Congress of both parties clearly recognize that energy technology breakthroughs are critical to the US gaining a bigger share of the $6 trillion global energy market, and indeed to American economic competitiveness more broadly.”

But conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation that had supported many of the proposed cuts said the package would shift DOE further from its core missions.

“It’s extremely disappointing that our elected officials show about as much restraint to spend taxpayers’ money as Garfield does when it comes to eating lasagna,” said Nick Loris, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “Let’s stop pretending the energy dominance begins at the Department of Energy.”