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With unusual candor, Senate appropriators ‘reject’ cuts to energy research

Many observers hoped Senate budgetmakers would oppose cuts to the Department of Energy's (DOE's) basic and applied research programs proposed by the White House in May. But they may not have expected them to be quite so blunt about it. The detailed report that accompanies the Senate version of the so-called energy and water bill, which funds DOE, contains several passages in which Senate appropriators express their objections to cuts in unusually frank language.

For example, in its budget request for fiscal year 2018, which begins 1 October, the White House seeks to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the 8-year-old agency that aims to quickly transform the best ideas from basic research into budding energy technologies. House of Representatives appropriators have voted to go along with that elimination, but Senate appropriators are having none of it. "The Committee definitively rejects this short-sighted proposal," the report says. Instead, Senate appropriators would increase ARPA-E's budget by 8% to $330 million. Their report expressly forbids DOE from using money to shut down ARPA-E.

Similarly, within DOE's Office of Science, the White House has called for cutting spending on biological and environmental research (BER) by 43% to $349 million. But the Senate appropriations committee "rejects the short-sighted reductions proposed in the budget request." Instead, Senate budgetmakers would boost BER research by 3% to $630 million. Senate appropriators also would give DOE's applied research in its Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy $1.937 billion, a 7% cut from last year, but far above the $636 million proposed by the White House.

The Committee definitively rejects this short-sighted proposal, and instead increases investment in this transformational program and directs the Department to continue to spend funds provided on research and development and program direction.

Senate appropriations committee, in a report accompanying a bill that funds the Department of Energy

Members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, which is led by chair Lamar Alexander (R–TN) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D–CA), would make cuts of their own. They would slash spending on fusion energy science by 39% to $232 million. They would also terminate the United States's participation in the international fusion project, ITER, under construction in France.

In all, the report contains the phrase "short-sighted" three times. That's as many times as it appeared in the previous 10 such reports—and in those instances the term was applied to decisions made by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is also funded through the energy and water bill. The word "rejects" or variants of it appear more often. It showed up four times in last year's report, but no more than once in the reports for fiscal years 2010 through 2016. The last time Senate appropriators used "reject" or a variant more often in report for the energy and water bill was fiscal year 2009, when it showed up eight times. Back then Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans controlled the White House.

The Senate bill and report are hardly the last word on the 2018 DOE budget. Both the House and Senate have to pass their respective versions of the bill. Then any discrepancies would have to be resolved before the bill would go to President Donald Trump for signing. Given differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, expectations that this process will go smoothly may be short-sighted.