Trump swings ax at coal, renewable, nuclear programs

Source: Christa Marshall and Hannah Northey, E&E News reporters • Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Trump administration wants to take a hatchet to the Department of Energy’s coal, efficiency, renewable energy and science programs.

The White House spending proposal would reduce DOE’s overall budget for fiscal 2018 by 5.6 percent to $28 billion, with cuts surging above 30 to 50 percent in many programs to offset a proposed 11 percent increase in the National Nuclear Security Administration.

On the proposed chopping block is DOE’s Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program, the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Small amounts of money would be provided to “oversee existing awards to completion and monitor the loan portfolio,” according to DOE budget documents.

The budget request proposes deep cuts in the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), which oversees one of DOE’s biggest regulatory functions — efficiency standards for buildings and appliances — and supports research in wind, solar, geothermal and other clean energy technologies. It also provides the majority of funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

The Trump administration is proposing to fund the office at $636 million, a cut of more than half. The office was funded at more than $2 billion in fiscal 2017.

Within the office, the weatherization and state energy subprograms are targeted for elimination “to reduce federal intervention in state-level energy policy and implementation,” the agency’s budget documents say.

One DOE staffer who asked to remain anonymous said agency managers want to reduce EERE staffing from 680 full-time employees to 458, but a DOE spokeswoman said such reports are premature.

“It is premature to be talking about layoffs coming when this is a budget request for FY2018 that has not even gone through the congressional appropriations process yet,” said DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has been touring the national labs in recent weeks and vowing to protect agency spending, defended the budget request in a statement, saying the proposal reflects the importance of strengthening the nation’s nuclear capabilities while emphasizing early-stage energy technology research and development.

“This budget delivers on the promise to reprioritize spending in order to carry out DOE’s core functions efficiently and effectively while also being fiscally responsible and respectful to the American taxpayer,” Perry said. “As we refocus resources, we will continue to utilize our national laboratories for cutting-edge science in order to improve both our energy and national security. I look forward to working with Congress as the budget process moves forward.”

Yet much of the agency’s work on cutting-edge technology would be gutted. The ARPA-E would see a decrease from its current level of approximately $300 million. The administration said $20 million would remain available to comply with administrative expenses necessary to carry out activities authorized by the America COMPETES Act and to close out the agency.

Fossil research and development would see a cut of more than half, from more than $600 million to $280 million.

It’s not clear how the proposed reduction jells with Trump’s plans for “clean coal” technology, since the office funds much of DOE’s research on carbon capture and sequestration. It’s also the main source of funding for the National Energy Technology Laboratory. The request proposes to initiate consolidation of NETL lab sites.

The Office of Nuclear Energy would receive $703 million, a sharp decrease from more than $1 billion for nuclear activities in fiscal 2017.

At the Office of Science, which oversees the majority of the national labs, funding would fall from $5.3 billion to $4.5 billion. The cuts would be uneven. Support for biological environmental research, for example, would fall about 40 percent while advanced computing research would see an increase.

DOE said the goal was “to focus on its core mission of conducting cutting edge, early-stage research.”

“Our organization has been around since the 1970s, and we’ve never seen anything remotely like this, going back to Republican and Democratic administrations since Jimmy Carter,” said Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan regarding the proposed cuts to energy efficiency spending.

‘Dead on arrival’

Much of the budget may be dead on arrival for members of Congress, who largely ignored Trump’s DOE proposal for fiscal 2017 and increased funding for programs like ARPA-E rather than slashing them.

Earlier this week, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee said, “Hell, I wouldn’t vote for most of them,” when asked about possible DOE budget cuts (E&E Daily, May 22).

Congress is going “to say ‘thank you for your contribution’ and they are going to start on their own budget,” said Frank Maisano of Bracewell LLP.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) noted the strong bipartisan support for many of the programs Trump is angling to slash.

“Given the strong support for these initiatives on both sides of the aisle, the Trump budget proposal is dead on arrival,” she said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue these important programs.”

The administration appeared to take aim at programs with strong GOP backing, including the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, or MOX plant, in South Carolina. The project, now at a total price tag of $4.5 billion, enjoys strong support from lawmakers like Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, but the Trump budget proposal would terminate the project and pursue a “dilute and dispose” option as an alternative.

Other portions of the budget could be embraced on Capitol Hill, namely a proposed uptick in defense spending and the inclusion of $120 million to resume the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project and an interim waste storage program, more than $330 million to address cybersecurity, and more than $10 billion to bolster NNSA’s refurbishment of the nuclear weapon stockpile.

Also in the mix is the budget’s proposed boost for agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which could see a 15.2 percent boost to $367 million, according to the agency’s budget request.

The budget request, which FERC said supports an overall 5 percent boost in base operating costs, would support, among other things, FERC’s ongoing infrastructure review process for non-federal hydropower and natural gas pipeline facilities, as well as modernizing the agency’s renovation on its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

FERC recovers the full cost of its operations through annual charges and filing fees assessed on the industries it regulates under the Federal Power Act.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, on the other hand, released a fiscal 2018 budget request for $952 million, a decrease of $48.3 million compared to fiscal 2017. New this year under the Trump administration is a request in the fiscal 2018 budget for $30 million to