Senate Committee Approves Major Energy Bill with Science Provisions

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Publication date: 
1 September 2015

On July 30, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved, by a bipartisan vote of 18 to 4, omnibus energy policy legislation, sending the bill to the full Senate for consideration. While the lion’s share of the bill focuses on electric grid modernization, energy storage, cybersecurity, energy workforce, and the development of hydrocarbon-based and renewable energy sources, it contains a number of sections relating to science.  Among these is an innovation title that authorizes funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science for Fiscal Years 2016 through 2020, several sections to help facilitate technology transfer from DOE’s national laboratories, and a major title focused on the federal management of critical minerals, some of which are used in energy research and technologies.

Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was joined by Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in sponsoring and supporting the bill.  Known as the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, the bill is currently unnumbered.  Its full text, without amendments, is available here, and a list and the text of amendments and manager’s packages offered and approved during committee consideration is available here.  Following the committee’s approval of the bill, which took three days of business meetings, Murkowski said: “Our committee today took bold steps to update and modernize our nation’s energy policies. Our broad energy bill drew overwhelming bipartisan support.” 

Of note to the scientific community, Section 4201 of the bill would authorize appropriations for the DOE Office of Science for Fiscal Years 2016 through 2020. In recent years, funding for the Office of Science has been authorized through the America COMPETES Act rather than through comprehensive energy legislation, although American COMPETES has not been reauthorized since 2010. Some observers are viewing this section as the equivalent of or even a replacement for the energy sciences section of America COMPETES.

The Energy Policy Modernization Act would authorize the Office of Science at $5,271 million in FY 2016; $5,485 million in FY 2017; $5,704 million in FY 2018; $5,932 million in FY 2019; and $6,178 million in FY 2020.  As a point of comparison, FYI reported that the Office of Science received appropriations of $5,066.4 million in FY 2014 and $5,067.7 million in FY 2015, and that President Obama requested $5,339.8 million in FY 2016.  Authorizations of funding are meant to set rough guidelines on future budgets for departments, agencies, and programs, but they are not binding.  Appropriations legislation, passed by Congress on an annual basis, allocates funding to science and other discretionary agencies and programs such as the DOE Office of Science.

Sections 4202 and 4203 of the bill would create programs for early stage technology demonstration at DOE national laboratories and technology transfer from DOE laboratories to small businesses.  Specifically, the bill states that, “The Secretary [of Energy] shall permit the directors of the National Laboratories to use funds authorized to support technology transfer within the Department to carry out early stage and pre-commercial technology demonstration activities to remove technology barriers that limit private sector interest and demonstrate potential commercial applications of any research and technologies arising from National Laboratory activities,” and “To promote the technology transfer of innovative energy technologies and enhance the competitiveness of the United States, the Secretary shall take such actions as are appropriate to facilitate access to the National Laboratories for small business concerns.”  This section also calls for the creation of a DOE website addressing small business concerns in connection with DOE’s national laboratories.

A separate amendment offered by Senators Mark Heinrich (D-NM) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), and included in one of the manager’s packages, would empower the Secretary of Energy to establish microlabs located nearby national laboratories for the purpose of facilitating technology transfer from the laboratories to regional economies.  These microlabs would focus on “enhancing collaboration with regional research groups, such as institutions of higher education and industry groups; accelerating technology transfer from national laboratories to the marketplace; and promoting regional workforce development through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction and training.”  The amendment would also authorize $50 million for FY 2016 for the purpose of carrying out this section. 

Following the successful inclusion of the microlabs amendment in the bill under consideration, Heinrich took the opportunity to thank the Chairman and Ranking Member for their support, saying: “We’ve had a lot of conversations on this committee about how much hydro fracking has changed the energy profile of this country. That’s one example of technology transfer, where research from inside our national labs moved into the private sector. That’s something we can do over and over and over again in many different technologies, and this really creates a front door where businesses and universities and economic development entities can access the labs in a much more convenient way without having to get a security clearance first.

A title on helium included in the bill would give right of first refusal for helium exploration, development, and production, to those who lease federal lands for natural gas.  This provision is notable because it would shift control of and responsibility for helium supply away from the federal government and toward private entities.  A related amendment offered by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) and passed by voice vote during committee consideration would aim to expedite the completion of environmental reviews for helium-related projects. 

Another major title that begins with Section 3301, and is drawn from a stand-alone bill previously introduced by Murkowski, would reauthorize the DOE’s critical minerals program with a focus on addressing current and potential future supply issues around the availability of critical minerals.  Of note, the section would call on the DOE to “establish an analytical and forecasting capability for identifying critical mineral demand, supply, and other factors to allow informed actions to be taken to avoid supply shortages, mitigate price volatility, and prepare for demand growth and other market shifts,” and “avoid duplication of effort, prevent unnecessary paperwork, and minimize delays in the administration of applicable laws (including regulations) and the issuance of permits and authorizations necessary to explore for, develop, and produce critical minerals and to construct critical mineral manufacturing facilities in accordance with applicable environmental and land management laws.” The title also requires the Secretary of Energy to maintain a list of minerals and elements that it has designated as critical and complete a comprehensive national assessment for each.

Following committee approval, the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 was reported to the full Senate.  It is uncertain when or if the Senate will have time to take up the bill before the end of the year, especially given the large number of other pressing issues, such as annual appropriations measures, it must address.  For the bill to become law, the House would also have to pass the legislation and the President would have to sign it.  Congress last passed a major energy policy bill – the Energy Independence and Security Act – in 2007.