Secretary Chu Testifies on Capitol Hill

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Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has testified before four congressional committees on the FY 2011 request for his department.  In appearances before two authorization committees and two appropriations subcommittees he was cordially received, with little discussion about the Office of Science’s $5.1 billion request, but with much interest in nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal.  It is apparent that a major factor in how much DOE receives of its $28.4 billion request is dependent on the appropriators’ response to a proposed $500 million cut for the Army Corps of Engineers which is funded in the same appropriations bill.  A key senator has already announced “we are not going to have a half-billion dollar cut for water projects.”

At a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) described the “stark fiscal environment” confronting Congress during this budget cycle, comments echoed by other senators and representatives in the four hearings.  He welcomed the Administration’s commitment to clean energy research, its program to expand nuclear energy, and ARPA-E.  Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was less enthusiastic, criticizing the Administration’s decision to cancel the Yucca Mountain project.  Later Bingaman said he wanted more information about the Administration’s second request to zero funding for major refurbishment of the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, which Congress rejected last year.  The chairman also asked about economic stimulus funding for the development of a smart grid, the department’s role in a carbon capture task force, and cancellation of Yucca Mountain.  Chu assured Bingaman that the government has decades to decide on what he said would be a better answer to the disposal of nuclear waste, a point he made at the other three hearings.  Senators were decidedly mixed about federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, with some calling for the Administration to move rapidly and another calling it “risky business.”  At this and the other hearings there was considerable interest in the department’s use of the economic stimulus funding it received early last year.

Chu’s second appearance was before the House Science and Technology Committee, where he received a good reception from committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA).  Republican members were more mixed in their response, citing their concerns about Yucca Mountain, moves to reduce carbon emissions, and increasing federal spending.  The DOE budget would increase 6.8 percent under the request.  Chu defended the Yucca Mountain decision, which Gordon called the most controversial change DOE had requested.  Chu said this decision would have “no impact on our expansion” of nuclear energy and expressed confidence in the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which held its first meeting in late March.  There was considerable discussion about the administration’s approach to nuclear energy  research.  Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) praised the Administration’s 4.4 percent requested increase for the Office of Science, saying it was consistent with the America COMPETES Act.  Not all members were as enthusiastic, with Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) being very critical of Yucca Mountain’s cancellation, proposed carbon controls, controversial climate change emails, and what he charged was the administration’s “cherry picking [of] scientific recommendations.”  Chu responded by citing the “overwhelming body of evidence” regarding climate change, and said “science investigates itself.”  While Chu later encountered more criticism about the Yucca Mountain decision, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) said “I think the Department of Energy did the right thing” in canceling Yucca Mountain.  Despite the range of members’ comments, Gordon concluded the hearing by saying “Dr. Chu, you are always a crowd pleaser.”

Two crowds that Chu must please are the House and Senate appropriators of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittees.  At the start of a two-hour hearing Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) described the DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration requests as the “good news for the subcommittee.”  The “not so good news” was the Administration’s proposed $500 million reduction in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget.  “We are not going to have a half-billion dollar cut for water projects” he predicted.  Dorgan later said  “I am excited about the work that is coming from out of the department” on new energy R&D, although he was concerned about hydrogen research funding.  Dorgan spoke of the proposed Energy Innovation Hub for battery research, and of ARPA-E, said “I am a big supporter of the program.”  He also praised DOE’s renewable energy program.  Ranking Member Robert Bennett (R-UT) also gave his support to energy research, but expressed concern about the amount of unspent DOE appropriations that “seems to be piling up down there,” proposed budget cuts in fossil energy, hydropower, uranium sales, and site remediation.  He said the Administration’s nuclear energy program was “on the right track.”  Other topics raised at this hearing included the status of Future Gen, electric vehicles, biofuels, weatherization grants, the slow pace of making loan guarantees, wind power, Yucca Mountain, shale gas, and nuclear fuel reprocessing.

Chu’s final appearance was before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, where members’ questions revolved around the same issues.  Ed Pastor (D-AZ) chaired the hearing, telling Chu he was very sure that science and technology would be critical in dealing with the nation’s energy problems.  Pastor said the subcommittee had concerns about Yucca Mountain and would be involved in setting a nuclear waste strategy.   Ranking Member Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) told Chu he was generally pleased with the direction the department is taking in programs involving nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, renewables, and loan guarantees, but complained about the lack of contact the subcommittee has had with DOE, especially in the case of Yucca Mountain where he said there had been “zero consultation with Congress.”   He also spoke of the difficulty that the proposed cut in the Army Corps of Engineers budget will cause.  Responding to often heard concerns from Congress, Chu used part of his oral testimony to describe the different roles of the Energy Innovation Hubs, the Energy Frontier Research Hubs, and ARPA-E.  Members’ questions were on subjects such as the Y-12 National Security Complex, nuclear energy research, the removal of nuclear material from the Idaho National Laboratory, and Yucca Mountain.

It is apparent from these four hearings that there is general support for the Department of Energy’s FY 2011 request.  There was nearly uniform praise for the direction the department is taking in expanding the use of nuclear energy.  Much more controversial is the decision to discontinue the Yucca Mountain project, and to a lesser degree, the administration’s plan to reduce carbon emissions.  Of perhaps greatest concern to the appropriators is how they will manage the proposed half-billion dollar budget reduction for the Army Corps of Engineers.   More will known when the House Appropriations Committee completes its version of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, which occurred in early July of last year.

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