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FYI Number 149: November 19, 2003

Administration Priorities for Climate Change Technology Questioned

Citing evidence suggesting that the Earth is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, members of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy challenged the White House's emphasis on climate change mitigation technologies with a long time horizon. At a November 6 subcommittee hearing, an Administration official testified that the federal government was supporting a diverse array of technologies for both the near- and long-term that would allow policymakers to decide what to implement "as the scientific certainty advances."

Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle demonstrated deep interest and concern about what the Administration was doing to address the threat of climate change and how it was prioritizing its investments and selecting projects for funding. Chairwoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) noted that, approaching the last year of the presidential term, the Administration's multi-agency Climate Change Technology Program is "still at the starting line." Announced by Bush in June 2001, the technology initiative, led by the Energy Department, has missed several deadlines for completing an inventory of existing federal R&D efforts and has not yet released a comprehensive strategic plan to guide future investments. In addition, Biggert commented that the Administration initiatives receiving the most attention - the Hydrogen Initiative to address challenges of moving the country toward a hydrogen energy economy; the ITER demonstration fusion reactor; and the FutureGen program to use coal to produce hydrogen and electricity with geologic sequestration of carbon emissions - all have time horizons on the order of 10 to 50 years. "How can we wait so long?" she asked.

"We are, in fact, pursuing a diverse portfolio with both near- and long-term impacts," responded Climate Change Technology Program Director David Conover. As an example, he cited voluntary programs with industry and trade associations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. Conover reported that an inventory of current technology development activities and a draft strategic plan would be released in the first quarter of 2004. He assured the subcommittee that the guiding principles of the plan would include diversification of R&D efforts and early demonstration of key technologies. That, he said, explains the Administration's focus on carbon sequestration: if its feasibility could be successfully demonstrated early on, climate change mitigation efforts could be built on the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure. If carbon sequestration proved unsuccessful, the technology portfolio would need to be shifted more toward other ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as energy efficiency, nuclear power, and renewable sources.

Asked why electric utilities would voluntarily adopt actions to reduce emissions, the DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Coal and Power Systems, George Rudins, stated that uncertainty over future regulations would prompt such actions. If emissions could be reduced or eliminated in a cost-competitive manner, he said, utilities could "have their cake and eat it as well." Marilyn Brown, Director of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, testified that many cost-effective energy-efficiency technologies currently exist and, if implemented, could have an immediate impact. But she said that because of the underpricing of energy and other imperfections in the market, public policy intervention is needed to facilitate deployment of these technologies.

Several subcommittee members tried to pin Conover down on the Administration's professed goal of long-term stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. "We never hear anything about when and at what levels," remarked Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). The Administration does not have "specific targets," Conover said. The "real issue," he added, is "achieving the goal of long-term stabilization at levels below which dangerous interference with the climate will not occur." He said the federal government must pursue technologies now "so as the scientific uncertainty decreases and we get better information," the government is positioned for decisions on implementation. "I have to say, the future is here," Woolsey said, "and that doesn't make me feel very confident. I think we're behind the gun on all of this."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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