Senate Spending Bill Boosts DOE Office of Science, ARPA-E, and NNSA

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Publication date: 
24 July 2017

The Senate’s fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill for the Department of Energy would provide significant funding increases to the Office of Science, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy. It also rejects the Trump administration’s proposal to drastically cut DOE’s applied energy offices, but would still reduce funding for each.

At a July 20 markup, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill, which funds the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers, by a vote of 30 to 1. The committee report accompanying the bill contains detailed funding and policy direction for DOE programs.

The bill totals $38.4 billion, a $629 million increase over the fiscal year 2017 level and $4.1 billion above President Trump’s request. Among the beneficiaries of the increase are the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Office of Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy. The NNSA budget would rise 5.8 percent to $13.69 billion, the Office of Science budget would increase 2.9 percent to $5.55 billion, and the ARPA-E budget would increase 7.8 percent to $330 million.

The bill’s boost for ARPA-E stands in particularly stark contrast with the administration’s request and the House’s version of the bill, which both seek to eliminate the agency.

Detailed tables containing funding figures for selected DOE programs are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Committee leaders highlight R&D priorities at markup

Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) referred to the president’s budget request as “unrealistic” in his opening statement at the July 18 subcommittee markup and highlighted that the bill contains record levels of funding within a regular appropriations bill for the Office of Science, ARPA-E, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

He also emphasized that he was “pleased to also be able to say that this bill makes it clear supercomputing is a national priority, which is something Secretary Perry and I both feel strongly about.” The bill provides $381 million split between the Office of Science and NNSA to develop at least one exascale machine by 2021.

Alexander went on to provide examples of programs the committee decided to reduce support for, remarking,

Since governing is about setting priorities, we had to make hard decisions to reduce or eliminate programs to make sure that the highest priorities in the bill received adequate funding. We eliminated funding for the U.S. contribution to ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France. This saved $50 million. We also agreed with the administration’s recommendation to eliminate the Title 17 Loan Guarantee program. We used the savings from eliminating this lower priority program to fund higher priority science and energy research and development work in the bill.

This is the fourth year in a row that the Senate bill zeros out funding for ITER. The House includes the requested $63 million for ITER in its version of the bill for fiscal year 2018 and in the past has been successful in securing funding for ITER in final negotiations.

Energy-Water Subcommittee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in her opening statement that she was “pleased” to support the bill, but noted her concern about the continued increase in weapons spending and registered her objection to the cut to applied energy programs and the elimination of the loan program:

I’m concerned that this bill continues a pattern of more money for weapons and lower or flat funding for everything else. With non-defense spending, in order to fund the increases in the Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of Science, we took two steps that concern me.

First, we cut our applied energy programs by 8 percent. These programs take discoveries made in the Office of Science and turn them into technologies that increase the efficiency of our energy system. Secondly, we zeroed out the loan program and took back the remaining loan authority and appropriated funds. While some may question whether we should have a loan program at DOE, the fact is that it has successfully loaned more than $30 billion in innovative energy and vehicle projects over the last 10 years and has resulted in net positive payments to the U.S. treasury.

Committee rejects administration’s rationale for cutting later stage R&D

The committee report accompanying the bill contains language throughout which rebukes the administration’s proposal for drastically reducing support for later stage R&D. Criticizing the proposed elimination of ARPA-E, the committee writes,

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. The Department shall not use any appropriated funds to plan or execute the termination of ARPA–E. In addition, the Committee remains concerned about the timeliness of the current review process, and directs the Department to continue to move forward on approving Funding Opportunity Announcements.

The report also contains language in the sections on the Offices of Fossil Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), and Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability that articulates the committee’s views on the value of federal support for later stage R&D. The language in the EERE section reads:

The President’s budget request proposes a shift away from later stage research and development activities to refocus the Department on an early-stage research and development mission. The Committee believes that such an approach will not successfully integrate the results of early-stage research and development into the U.S. energy system and thus will not adequately deliver innovative energy technologies, practices, and information to American consumers and companies.

Notably, this is the case with complex systems and structures such as America’s homes, offices and other buildings. The Committee provides funding to support a comprehensive and real-world strategy that includes medium- and later-stage research and development; deployment and demonstration activities; and other approaches that are designed to utilize the most effective means to increase buildings’ energy efficiency in order to promote their affordability, sustainability, resilience, and productivity.

Nevertheless, the bill would still cut funding for all of DOE’s applied energy offices, albeit much less than the administration requested. The bill distributes cuts among these offices differently than the House version, seeking deeper cuts to the Offices of Fossil and Nuclear Energy and a far less steep cut to EERE.

Senators hope for budget deal to raise spending caps

Although all of the committee’s Democratic members ultimately voted in favor of the bill, they noted their opposition to how it boosts defense programs at the expense of non-defense programs.

“There is a $1 billion increase for defense activities, while non-defense activities see a decrease of $415 million, demonstrating the fundamental imbalance in the current approach to funding the nation’s infrastructure, scientific research and technology development priorities,” the minority press release on the bill’s approval argues.

Feinstein offered an amendment that would have increased the bill’s defense spending by $200 million and its non-defense spending by $1.87 billion, contingent on Congress reaching a bipartisan agreement to raise the statutory caps on discretionary spending set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. $200 million of this amount would go to the Office of Science, of which $100 million would be for Basic Energy Sciences, $75 million for Nuclear Physics, and $25 million for High Energy Physics.

Although the committee majority opposed the amendment, it signaled its support for a deal to modify the budget caps. A press release accompanying the committee’s announcement of the total spending allocations for its 12 appropriations bills says, “A budget deal remains the most likely path toward enactment of appropriations bills that responsibly meet the nation’s national security commitments and domestic needs.”

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