The Z machine at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico is just one of the many research efforts funded by the Department of Energy.

The Z machine at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico is just one of the many research efforts funded by the Department of Energy.

Sandia Labs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Senate energy bill that calls for 4% DOE science boost moves forward

Just before Congress takes its August break, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has finished marking up its bipartisan energy bill, an effort to make the most sweeping update to the country’s energy policy in more than 8 years. The legislation—which would authorize a wide array of programs—includes a call to boost funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science by 4% per year for 5 years. The office is the nation’s major funder of energy and physical science research.

Other provisions within the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 would push for greater energy efficiency, updates to the energy grid, and a grid storage program; ease the permitting of natural gas pipelines; and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money for habitat protection. The committee passed it by an 18 to 4 vote.

“What we have done today is laid out a base bill that has good, strong bipartisan support and regional support,” said Lisa Murkowski (R–AK), one of the bill’s two sponsors, at a press conference yesterday.

Her co-sponsor, Maria Cantwell (D–WA), noted recent news stories that poked fun at the bill’s title. “Much as we’ve maligned the title, it is about modernization—modernizing the grid, the workforce,” she said at the press conference. “I don’t think that if you were sitting here in 2009 and wondered what bill we’d write in 2015, you’d realize these would be the issues. But these are the issues.”

At the bill’s release last week, Murkowski told reporters that they intended to move it forward quickly. That meant not including contentious issues including offshore oil permitting, the Keystone XL pipeline, and climate change, and rejecting amendments from both sides of the aisle that might hinder its passage.

The bill’s DOE research provisions are among those enjoying bipartisan backing. They are drawn from another legislative effort, led by Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), to reauthorize the now-expired COMPETES Act, which shapes research policies at the National Science Foundation, DOE, and other research agencies. Besides the 4% bump for DOE’s Office of Science, the energy bill authorizes a 4% annual increase in funding for DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Congress’s appropriations committees, however, would have to approve any actual spending increases, and parallel legislation approved earlier by the House of Representatives recommends no increase in the science office’s budget over the next few years.

The Senate bill also directs the DOE to set up two parallel research partnerships, each headed by a national lab working with partners in academia and industry, to build a superfast exascale computer. That meshes with an Obama administration effort, announced yesterday, to coordinate government action to reach exascale capabilities.

Alexander welcomed those research provisions earlier this week. But environmental groups have come out against the bill. In a letter addressed to Murkowski and Cantwell, 11 environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council commended some of the bill’s “forward-thinking” provisions, including programs promoting energy efficiency, energy grid storage and new technologies, and the permanent extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But the groups said some provisions were unacceptable. Those included the repeal of a provision in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that had called for phasing out fossil fuels from new and renovated federal buildings by 2030, speeding up approvals of terminals exporting liquefied natural gas, and changes to the regulation of hydropower dams that they say would reduce dam owners’ responsibility for any environmental damage. “Authoring a bill of such complexity in a bipartisan manner is a truly impressive accomplishment,” they concluded, “but that does not justify removing key environmental protections.”

The groups also noted that the bill does not directly address two “modern” renewable energy sources: wind and solar energy. “We are … troubled by the lack of clean energy investments made by a bill that claims to modernize our energy policy,” the groups wrote. The bill does have provisions covering hydropower (and reclassifies it as renewable energy, which exempts the industry from some regulations), as well as geothermal and marine hydrokinetic energy (wind, wave, or tidal technologies).

Murkowski urged naysayers to focus on the big picture. “You’re going to have folks that will be critical because it has or doesn’t have this or that particular provision, but I’m going to get everybody to draw back and look at it as a whole,” she said. “Sometimes it has to be a series of incremental steps that get us to that point where we can say we’ve made a difference. We’re trying to move us forward.”

Energy policy updates have lagged behind energy research for years, Cantwell said, and badly need to catch up. “We’re in a major transformation of energy. This committee plays a vital role, and we should be reviewing policy every year.”

The bill now goes to the full Senate, but the timing of any debate and vote is uncertain. The House, meanwhile, is trying to move its own energy bill, which covers fewer issues than the Senate bill and has no major research component.