Congressional Inaction Causes Renewable Energy Programs to Suffer

When Congress left town to stand for re-election, it left without finishing the business of funding national energy programs. Instead, it put in place a stop-gap bill called a Continuing Resolution (CR), which leaves hydropower research at zero, slashes geothermal research 80%, reduces Electricity R&D funding by nearly a quarter, and decimates building code efficiency programs — to name just a few of the federal energy programs left by the wayside.

With Congress planning to return for only a few days in November, after the elections, it’s hard to imagine how lawmakers will complete the many unfinished appropriations bills before the end of the year. Considering the growing public awareness about climate change, depleting oil reserves, and the need for more renewable energy, one would think members of Congress would be pressing hard to expand these programs. “Not so,” said Ken Bossong, Coordinator of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and Director of the Sun Day Campaign, a national network of grassroots organizations promoting renewable energy technologies and improved energy efficiency. “We’ve heard a lot about carbon taxes and auto fuel efficiency legislation — two directives that could make a real difference — but we’ve seen no Congressional action,” Bossong said. Significant Cuts in the Continuing Resolution (CR) The appropriations process starts when the administration releases its budget recommendations, usually in January. Then the House and Senate each review the recommendations and vote on funding proposals for the agency programs. They work out their differences by producing a Conference Report that takes into consideration the House, Senate, and Administration recommendations. This Conference Report sets final funding amounts that, once approved by the House and Senate, are sent to the President to become law. But this year, Congress hasn’t even begun to produce a Conference Report for the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill — the one that includes the Department of Energy’s (DOE) programs — nor has a Conference Report been produced for the nine other bills whose programs remain suspended in uncertainty under the Continuing Resolution (CR). While the President’s budget proposed some renewable program increases, it also included some serious renewable and efficiency program cuts. Yet for the past several months it looked like the tides were turning. The House and Senate each restored some of the programmatic budget cuts proposed by the Administration, particularly the geothermal and hydropower research programs. It looked like a Conference agreement could maintain or expand many renewable and efficiency programs. But Congress never finished most of the regular appropriations bills, and now the CR is changing that forward momentum. The CR could wipe out any gains made. When ten of twelve annually required appropriations bills — bills that approve funding for federal agencies — were not completed before Congress adjourned, the CR was passed to cover the gap. One of these ten bills, the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, contains funding for all renewable energy and energy efficiency programs at DOE. A CR allows federal agencies and programs to operate, usually based upon historic funding levels, until Congress signs a bill with final budget numbers. But not this year’s CR. This year’s CR, good through November 17, 2006, allows federal agencies and programs to operate at the lower of the two funding levels set by the House and Senate. So, if either House has cut a program, it is reduced to the lowest funding level — which could be zero. While the CR is usually a short-term stopgap measure, this time it may be extended for six months or more, program cuts that will have a devastating impact on federal renewable energy efforts. A number of worthwhile programs are being terminated or reduced under the CR. Take the Geothermal DOE Program, for example: funded at $ 24 million last year, the Administration recommended terminating the program, the House recommended restoring $5 million, and the Senate recommended nearly full restoration. Under the CR, geothermal receives only $5 million in 2007. Programs that have had funding partially or fully restored by the House or Senate, but that now face cuts compared with FY ’06 levels under the terms of the CR, include: Renewable Energy Programs: — Geothermal (78% decrease) — Hydropower (100% decrease) Efficiency Programs: — Industrial Technologies (16% decrease) — Industries of the Future (30% decrease) — Vehicle Technologies (5% decrease) — Clean Cities (19% decrease) — Federal Energy Management (12% decrease) — State Energy Program (30% decrease) — Weatherization Assistance Program (16% decrease) — Electricity R&D (22% decrease) Inaction Spells Continuing Confusion for Renewable Energy Without federal investment in research and demonstration projects, new technologies will not reach their full potential, said Linda Church Ciocci, Executive Director of the National Hydropower Association. “Cutting hydropower funding within the DOE is extremely short-sighted when there is so much to be gained in bringing these clean, non-polluting technologies to the market at a time when our nation needs greater diversity and more home grown energy,” she said. Similarly, the geothermal industry believes DOE research support is critical to achieving future potential. “We are tapping only one or two percent of the U.S. geothermal resource base,” said Karl Gawell, Executive Director of the Geothermal Energy Association. Not all programs were cut, however. Some received temporary increases. The Solar, Building Technology and Biomass programs have both received more funding. But these programs have only short-term budgets, making long-term program planning nearly impossible. As Congress adjourned, the Appropriations Committee leadership took a strong stand against pulling together the unfinished bills into one “omnibus” measure. As Congress Daily reported, House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) sent a written appeal to GOP leaders to avoid bundling together unfinished FY 2007 spending bills into a collective package after the elections. “It is our belief that omnibus legislation that bypasses the regular order is not in the best interests of the Congress, or ultimately the taxpayer,” Lewis and Cochran wrote in a letter Monday to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN). Many factors make the passage of an appropriations bill uncertain. Congress won’t return until November 14, 2006, so that leaves four days in which ten bills must be passed. That is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Even if Congress can sort through the bills, some are skeptical about how the ’07 appropriations numbers will finally turn out. “We’re worried our programs will get hit hard in conference,” said Kara Rinaldi, Director of Policy at the Alliance to Save Energy. “Because Congress increased funding for defense, a great deal of money could be taken out of important domestic spending programs.” If Congress doesn’t pass all the remaining appropriations bills before adjourning for the holidays, some say that another CR might be passed. That CR would likely extend through January or February. That could cause chaos in the next Congress. When Congress adjourns, bills that have not passed must start at the beginning of the legislative process. If Congress cannot complete action on the appropriations bills in the twelve months of this year, it is unlikely that new leadership will be able to pass them in a matter of weeks. This has been on the minds of many agency officials, as planning for the FY 2008 budget is already well underway and funding decisions for FY 2007 still have not been made. According to insiders at DOE, the current CR budget numbers are being used to plan for 2007 and 2008. Therefore, some programs will be forced to operate as if their budgets have been terminated or reduced until Congress can finish its business. When Congress adjourned, Senate Democrats blasted the Republican leadership for failing to adopt a fiscal 2007 budget resolution or complete 10 out of 12 appropriations bills. “This Republican leadership is in total gridlock — refusing to act, refusing to compromise, and refusing to govern,” said Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND). What Congress will do when it reconvenes November 14th is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, numerous renewable energy and energy efficiency programs have had their budgets cut. Congressional action — or inaction, as the case may be — will decide the fate of many critical energy programs. Alyssa Kagel works for the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) located in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed are her own.
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