At a recent House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, participants touched on a wide range of issues related to the Department of Energy, including R&D priorities and the management and structure of the national lab system. The committee framed the hearing as a prelude to potential DOE reform legislation.
The Energy Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee convened a hearing on Jan. 9 to consider the “modernization” of the Department of Energy. Over the course of nearly five hours, 10 witnesses testified about subjects ranging across the department's various missions, with significant attention devoted to DOE’s R&D priorities and the management of its national laboratories.
Status of committee’s DOE reform bill unclear
The hearing is the first in an anticipated series that will inform legislation the committee is preparing to update DOE’s authorizing statutes. Proponents of the effort say the transition into a new era of “energy abundance” and the rise of new threats like cyberattacks necessitate an entirely new look at the department’s mission, organization, programs, and operations.
Committee Vice Chair Joe Barton (R-TX) has been working since at least last summer on the legislation, which he has said should be a “bipartisan” effort. However, in his opening remarks, Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) reported that committee Democrats had not yet been made privy to any reform proposals.
“If my Republican colleagues want to take a targeted look at DOE programs to see where improvements can be made, then I am open to listening to their proposals,” Pallone remarked. However, he warned committee Democrats would resist any potential proposals “to eliminate scores of successful programs and arbitrarily shrink the size of DOE” or combine functions from the Environmental Protection Agency with DOE.
Republicans at the hearing only spoke about the legislative effort in very general terms. Subcommittee Chair Frank Upton (R-MI) remarked,
Modernizing the Department of Energy means ensuring it has the appropriate statutory authorities and sound management structure to meet not only the challenges we know about today but what may be coming over the horizon. It means ensuring agency leadership can align the department’s operations and resources to meet priorities. It means ensuring the tremendous scientific and technological assets of this agency are effectively focused for the benefit of the long-term security and prosperity of Americans.
Upton is now reportedly leading the legislative effort following Barton’s decision not to seek re-election.
Committee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR) suggested the effort could go on for some time, saying, “This committee will work through the remainder of this Congress, and beyond, to ensure the department’s organization and mission are aligned with the energy security challenges of today and are nimble enough to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”
DOE witnesses discuss department’s R&D priorities
(Image credit – House Energy and Commerce Committee)
The first panel the committee heard from comprised Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes, Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, and Frank Klotz, the outgoing head of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Dabbar highlighted two current priorities for the DOE Office of Science. The first is developing an exascale computer by 2021, which Dabbar said would help maintain U.S. leadership in computing. The second is the construction of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility / Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment at Fermilab and in South Dakota, an effort he said will “cement U.S. preeminence in neutrino science, one of the frontiers of high-energy physics.” Dabbar also spoke highly of DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, a small organization under his authority that oversees technology transfer efforts across the department.
Brouillette and Menezes discussed DOE’s priorities in energy policy and technology development, noting that the reliability of the electric grid will be a major focus for applied R&D. Menezes said this entails supporting work in areas such as energy storage, small modular nuclear reactors, and the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid. Like Dabbar, Menezes also pointed to the importance of “public–private partnerships with our national laboratories bringing research technology to market.”
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) asked Brouillette how DOE reconciles its commitment to innovation with the Trump administration’s proposed steep budget cuts, including, she noted, to clean energy electric grid operations and next-generation energy technologies. “That’s not a recipe for innovation,” she said.
Brouillette replied that proposed budget cuts have been mainly to applied R&D programs, explaining, “We want the focal point to be basic research, which we feel is a very strong point of the Department of Energy.”
Asked by Pallone about the status of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, Brouillette replied that it “still exists.” He said Energy Secretary Rick Perry is “still in the process of evaluating membership on that board, but at this moment in time I don’t think he’s made any decisions” about who its members will be.
Expert panel stresses DOE’s importance to industrial innovation
A second panel of expert witnesses focused heavily on DOE’s R&D activities and expressed support for a multi-faceted innovation effort encompassing both basic and applied research.
Dan Reicher, a former DOE official in Democratic administrations and currently the executive director of the Stanford University Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, condemned the Trump administration’s treatment of DOE. Citing proposals to cut the applied energy offices’ budgets and eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and Loan Programs Office, among other programs, he said the department’s progress is “slowing as important programs, key personnel, long-standing advisory functions, and related funding are hollowed out.”
Rich Powell, executive director of the ClearPath Foundation, which advocates for “conservative” innovation-centered clean energy policies, said that the increasing competition posed by Chinese R&D necessitates a “soup-to-nuts” approach to innovation. He argued DOE should support technology demonstration projects “while avoiding market interference,” and that it should propose “moonshot” energy goals and support work toward achieving them.
Steve Wasserman, testifying on behalf of the Society for Science at User Research Facilities, emphasized user facilities’ importance to companies as they develop new technologies and products. He said they are “a type of infrastructure that, like transportation and utilities, needs to be maintained and improved.”
Participants review management and structure of national lab system
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Zacharia testified during the second panel about ongoing reviews of the contracting procedures and regulations for DOE labs as part of the department’s efforts to make the labs more effective. In the first panel, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) specifically urged Brouillette to address concerns raised by the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories relating to the transactional costs associated with “budget atomization” in lab contracts.
Donald Levy, who co-chairs the National Academies Panel to Track and Assess Governance and Management Reform in the Nuclear Security Enterprise, discussed his panel’s work and its sense that NNSA management reform efforts have been inadequate to date.
Upton and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) expressed a more general interest in how well NNSA has functioned as a semi-autonomous body within DOE since it was established in 2000. Klotz testified that he had enjoyed a close working relationship with both the department and the non-NNSA national labs.
Barton asked the second panel whether there are redundancies among the missions of the 17 national labs. He specifically asked if U.S. investment in high energy physics (HEP) at the Switzerland-based CERN facility obviates the need to support three different HEP facilities: Fermilab, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
Wasserman pointed out that the national labs have repurposed themselves over time to fit researchers’ evolving requirements. While Powell suggested the labs might be trying to be too adaptable at the expense of focusing on their strengths, Zacharia argued the labs tend to seize the opportunities that are right for them, saying,
If one focuses on the mission of the department, then the laboratories will self-select based on their capabilities and abilities to support the missions of the department.