Among other things, House appropriators would zero out SUNPATH III, a $25.5 million program to help develop the manufacturing of photovoltaic solar cells in the United States.

Among other things, House appropriators would zero out SUNPATH III, a $25.5 million program to help develop the manufacturing of photovoltaic solar cells in the United States.

DOE/Flickr

U.S. House panel would slash Department of Energy's applied research

Republican budgetmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives signaled their support for basic research and their reluctance to invest federal dollars in applied research today in their markup of a bill that would set the budget for the Department of Energy (DOE) next year. The bill has already drawn a veiled veto threat from the White House, however, in part because of the cuts it would make to DOE's applied research programs.

The House Committee on Appropriations' version of the so-called energy and water bill for fiscal year 2016, which begins 1 October, would boost spending by 0.6% for DOE's basic research arm, the Office of Science, to $5.10 billion. It would maintain the current budget of $280 million for DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which strives to translate the most promising ideas from basic research into budding technologies. The Obama administration has requested a 5.3% increase for the Office of Science and a 16% hike for ARPA-E.

The split between the White House and House Republicans is much larger with respect to DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program. The House bill would cut its current budget by 13.8%, to $1.66 billion, while the Obama administration wants a 41.5% boost, to $2.72 billion.

The House markup is "a strong bill" that "smartly utilizes and improves the way we use the energy sources we have now and that works to develop new technologies that will make energy production in this country safer and more efficient," said Representative Harold Rogers (R–KY), chair of the full committee. But even before the appropriators convened this morning, Shaun Donovan, director the White House Office of Management and Budget, had sent a letter to Rogers expressing "concern" about several provisions in the bill and specifically mentioning the EERE cuts. "The bill slashes support for U.S. innovators—scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs pioneering new clean energy technologies that will spur America's long-term economic competitiveness," he wrote.

The Office of Science funds more physical sciences research than any other U.S. agency. The House bill would gently reshuffle priorities among its six research programs. The Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, which supports DOE's supercomputing efforts, would see its budget slip by 0.6%, to $538 million—the first cut in a decade. The Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program would shrink by 9%, to $538 million. House Republicans perennially target climate research within BER.

In contrast, Basic Energy Sciences (BES) would see its budget creep up 2%, to $1.77 billion. BES funds work in chemistry, materials sciences, and related fields and runs DOE's x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources. Fusion Energy Sciences would get $467 million—the same as this year—including $150 million for the U.S. contribution to ITER, the international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France. (The White House proposed to cut $48 million in domestic fusion research.) High Energy Physics would get a 1.3% bump, to $776 million, and Nuclear Physics would climb by 3.3%, to $616 million.

In contrast, legislators would make deep cuts in several EERE programs. The sustainable transportation portfolio, which funds work on vehicles, bioenergy, and fuel cell technologies, would see its budget fall 14%, to $514 million. That would be $278 million below the White House’s request. Renewable energy, which seeks to develop, demonstrate, and deploy solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal technologies, would suffer a 28% cut to $326 million—$318 million below the request. And the energy efficiency portfolio, which funds applied research on advance manufacturing, building technology, weatherization, and intergovernmental programs, would fall by 4%, to $618 million—$412 million below the president's request.

House Republicans have long argued that private industry, not DOE, should foot the bill for applied research. But Democrats on the committee disagree. "The $266 million decrease in funding for the renewable energy and energy efficiency accounts is concerning and threatens to undercut the extraordinary strides our nation has made in innovation in these fields," said Representative Marcy Kaptur (D–OH), the ranking member on the subcommittee for energy, water, and related agencies.

The bill's fate may rest on other, nonfiscal provisions, however. It contains riders that prohibit, for example, the use of funds to implement regulations that change the definition of waterways that fall under the control of the Clean Water Act, which was signed into law in 1972, or the definition of "fill material" under that act. Those provisions would prevent the Obama administration from using the act to regulate fossil fuel industries, Rogers said. "The administration continues to push an agenda of job-killing regulations that could strangle this country's energy industries, in particular coal," said Rogers, who hails from a major coal-producing state.

But the administration doesn’t think spending bills should tackle such issues—especially if the riders clash with the administration's priorities. "The inclusion of these provisions threatens to undermine an orderly appropriations process," Donovan wrote.

Senate appropriators have not yet written their own version of the energy and water spending bill, and any differences would then have to be reconciled before Congress could act. So it's too early to say whether the EERE cuts and the riders will make it into a bill that would be presented to the president.