White House seeking more clean energy cuts despite congressional opposition

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2018

Workers installing photovoltaic panels on the roof of the building at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. (AP Photo/NREL, Dennis Schroeder)

The Trump administration is preparing to ask for even deeper funding cuts to clean energy research at the Energy Department — just months after Congress rejected proposed cuts to those offices.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget on Friday directed the department to submit a budget request that would reduce funding for all nondefense offices by 5 percent from what the administration sent to Congress for fiscal 2019. The guidance was described in a June 22 memo sent by John Vonglis, the department’s chief financial officer, to agency heads and obtained by The Washington Post.

But that 2019 budget request submitted in February was roundly rejected by Congress, which appropriated funding for alternative energy research above the level the Trump administration requested.

The OMB request for even less funding for scientific and applied energy research is likely to be a tough pill for Congress to swallow this time around. Yet both budget requests are a signal that OMB, led by the fiscal hawk Mick Mulvaney, wants to reshuffle priorities for the sprawling Energy Department. (The Energy Department declined to comment for this report, and OMB did not reply to a request for comment.)

Under President Barack Obama, the department led federal research into cleaner forms of energy production meant to reduce emissions of climate-warming gases. But President Trump’s White House wants to instead boost outlays for the department’s weapons program. In addition to doing energy research, the Energy Department is responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

For example, the Trump administration sought in February to slash the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) to $696 million for fiscal 2019, a 66 percent cut from the 2017 budget.

A cut of 5 percent would bring it down even lower, to $661 million. That figure stands in stark contrast to EERE’s current funding level of $2.3 billion passed by Congress in an omnibus spending bill in March.

Similarly, the budget of an office working on carbon capture and storage, sometimes called “clean coal,” would drop to $477 million for fiscal 2020 under such a cut. The current budget for that bureau, the Office of Fossil Energy, is almost double that at $727 million. Trump frequently makes mention of “beautiful, clean coal” in campaign-style speeches, though it is unclear if he understands that term usually refers to methods of capturing the carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change.

Bureaus conducting basic science and nuclear energy research could similarly be diminished in the White House’s 2020 request, even though reviving the nation’s nuclear power plants is a goal of the Trump administration.

Members of Congress, including several Republican senators with Energy Department laboratories in their states, have pushed back against the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, which would have imperiled local, high-paying research jobs.

In recent months, Energy Department officials have had to defend the OMB’s budget request in front of upset members of Congress reminding them that they — and not the president — hold the power of the purse.

When asked in March during a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water issues about a proposal to eliminate the popular Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, Energy Secretary Rick Perry responded that “you have my commitment that I’m going to work with this committee.”

“We’re going to honor and follow instructions,” Perry added.

And when Daniel Simmons, Trump’s nominee to run EERE, testified in front of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, he also said he would follow congressional spending orders. “Congress has the final say when it comes to appropriating dollars,” he said.

The budget-writing process for fiscal 2020 outlined in the memo is preliminary, and subject to change. But OMB’s interest in shrinking the portfolio of the Energy Department’s nonweapons work is long-standing.

Just last week, Mulvaney unveiled a radical overhaul of the federal bureaucracy that including merging the Energy Department’s applied-energy program into a single “innovation” office.

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser, sees the plan as a “a back-door attempt to cut energy innovation funding,” he said last week.