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New energy bill approved by U.S. Senate looks favorably on research
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New energy bill approved by U.S. Senate looks favorably on research

Federal energy research could get a financial shot in the arm under a bipartisan energy bill, passed by the U.S. Senate today on an 85 to 12 vote, which calls for hefty budget increases for science. But researchers shouldn’t start celebrating: Whether the money ever reaches laboratories will depend on a number of factors, including whether Congress and the White House can agree on a final version of the legislation, and whether the lawmakers who control the purse strings actually ante up the funding envisioned by the bill.

The so-called authorizing legislation—the first major rewrite of federal energy law since 2007—sets policy and nonbinding funding levels for a broad array of government programs, including research efforts. It envisions funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, the nation’s major funder of the physical sciences, rising by 5% per year, to $7.13 billion in 2020 (up from $5.35 billion this year). DOE’s smaller Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which aims to commercialize high-risk energy technologies, would grow to $375 million in 2020 (up from $291 million this year).

Those numbers are more generous than the figures included in a draft of the Senate bill introduced in January. That version included a 4% annual raise for the Office of Science, and a smaller boost for ARPA-E. But that changed thanks to two amendments—one from Senators Lamar Alexander (R–TN) and Richard Durbin (D–IL), and another offered by Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI).

Optimism, with caveats

The Senate’s endorsement of the funding boosts is a political victory for energy research at a time of tight budgets, according to Brad Townsend, associate director for energy innovation at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “These programs are really critical to the development of the new energy technologies we need as well as our competitiveness, and the bill is a good step towards the funding levels we’d like to see,” he wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.

But that optimism comes with plenty of caveats, says Michael Lubell, spokesperson for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. He notes that Congress has a long history of offering more money in authorization bills, such as this one, than it later gives out in the annual appropriations process. Over the last decade, for instance, DOE’s Office of Science has gotten between $300 million and $1 billion less annually than authorized levels. The ARPA-E program has also fallen short of authorized spending.

Recent budget deals, meanwhile, have essentially frozen spending for many DOE programs. Last week, for example, appropriations panels in both houses of Congress approved spending bills that would give DOE’s Office of Science just a 0.9% increase next year, to $5.4 billion; that is less than what the Senate authorizing bill envisions.  

He questioned whether the additional spending envisioned in the new bill would be realized, “given the existing [budget] climate.” Even with these generous authorizing levels, he says it still puts the country at risk of falling further behind other parts of the world in the push to build cutting-edge research facilities such as Europe’s Large Hadron Collider.

Other provisions

In addition to new funding, the bill would revamp U.S. law to speed approval for construction of energy infrastructure, upgrade parts of the electrical grid, and boost energy efficiency in buildings, among other things.

Some of the highlights are:

  • Controversial language promoting wood-burning electrical generation as “carbon neutral” (meaning it adds no greenhouse gases to the atmosphere over the long term). Environmental groups and some scientists have criticized the idea as inaccurate and threatening U.S. forests, whereas other scientists have said federal rules need to be clarified to promote some kinds of forest biomass energy.
  • Faster decisions for energy projects. The bill promises to accelerate federal decisions about permits for liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminals, hydropower dam licensing, and electrical transmission line projects. For example, DOE would have to rule on LNG terminals within 45 days of approval from other agencies. Today, there is no deadline.
  • Electrical grid upgrades. The bill pushes for additional work on cybersecurity for the nation’s electrical grid and improvements in dealing with the spread of small, distributed electricity generators such as rooftop solar panels. It includes $500 million for a 10-year research program to develop large-scale energy storage, a key for renewable energy such as wind and solar that fluctuates throughout the day.
  • Conservation funding. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, created with a portion of oil and gas royalties from federal lands, would become permanent. The program is credited with protecting more than 2 million hectares of land since its creation in 1965. It expired in 2015, only to be kept alive temporarily as part of the budget agreement reached at the end of the year.

Mixed reactions

The legislation—crafted chiefly by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–AK), the head of the Senate’s energy committee, and the panel’s senior democrat, Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA)—is getting a mixed response from a range of interest groups. Although the Sierra Club praised the bipartisan approach, it opposed the final bill, citing the biomass and LNG measures, as well as language encouraging research into tapping undersea methane hydrates for energy. “At the end of the day, the balance of this bill favors the dirty and dangerous fossil fuels of the past,” the club’s legislative director, Melinda Pierce, said in a statement.

The Edison Electric Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that represents U.S. electric power companies, came out in favor of the bill, praising the streamlined permitting for energy projects.

The Senate bill will now need to be reconciled with a less-encompassing energy bill already passed by the House of Representatives. Representative Fred Upton (R–MI), head of the House energy panel, offered some encouraging words after the Senate vote. “With today’s milestone, we are one step closer to embracing policies that say yes to energy,” he said. “I look forward to conferencing with our counterparts in the Senate.”

The White House didn’t issue a comment after the Senate vote, referring instead to a statement issued in January about the original bill. Then, the White House praised portions of the bill, while raising concerns about changes to permitting for energy projects and energy efficiency programs, among others. The statement indicated the administration was “looking forward” to working with Congress on the issue.

It’s not clear whether Congress will be able to finish its work on the energy bill this year.