Government Shutdown Damages U.S. Energy Innovation

The federal government has officially shutdown as of midnight, October 1st 2013 due to Congress’s failure to pass a budget. The 2013 fiscal year ends on September 30th and the government required a new budget to continue operations. The government has been operating on a Continue Resolution — a CR, or an extension of the previous years budget, since 2012.

While coverage of the shutdown will focus on the political circus that is fueling it and the thousands furloughed from their jobs, it is also important to note that it’s directly impacting America’s overall energy innovation capacity. In the short-term, many of the nations premier energy innovation institutions will scale-down or shutdown completely, while a few will continue to operate using carryover funds. That means the longer the shutdown drags on, America will produce less research, less next-gen energy technologies, and less fundamental science discoveries. In other words, a prolonged shutdown threatens overall U.S. international competitiveness and progress towards a low-carbon advanced energy system.

Specifically, the following energy-related institutions and programs are being directly impacted by the government shutdown:

Impacts on the Development of Next-Generation Renewable Energy

  • The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has stopped all new offshore wind demonstration project permitting.
  • The Department of Energy’s leading research and technology development offices, such as the Office of Science and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, are currently being run by a skeleton crew, dramatically decreasing stewardship of the National Labs and program management of nearly $5 billion in clean energy innovation projects. The NNSA — which manages the countries nuclear stockpile — would continue to be managed by 343 essential personnel.
  • The shutdown will directly impact National Lab research if it prolongs. Most Labs have enough carryover funds from the existing 2013 budget to fund Lab staff for between weeks or up to a month, depending on the Lab. After those funds are exhausted, non-security-related research would need to be halted.
  • ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s high-risk, high-reward breakthrough energy technology program is completely shut down. For example, it is not able to advance or manage the recently announced 33 energy projects to advance low-carbon transportation technologies. Also completely shutting down is the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, which is working to advance the nations electric grid.
  • Research activities at NIST and NOAA, including climate and weather research, material science, nano-science, and energy science, have been stopped.
  • NASA energy and earth-systems research is halted, along with almost 98 percent of the agencies total staff.
  • The Patent and Trademark Office will be able to stay open for at least a month until it also has to shutdown, which would act as a significant barrier to innovation of all kind, including energy.
  • Non-essential research and procurement, at the Department of Defense, such as that largely invested in clean energy (roughly $1 billion worth), is halted which is slowing down development of next-generation batteries, microgrids, and power electronics as well as early markets for solar panels on bases. This includes DOD research contracts with external companies.
  • Non-federal scientists can continue working on existing DOE, NIST, and National Science Foundation research grants, such as those working in Universities, but no new research grants will be given.

Impacts on Existing Fossil Fuel Energy Infrastructure

  • The Interior Department has halted permits and permit reviews for onshore and offshore oil and gas leases. While existing permits would still be inspected, the shutdown is halting existing lease payments to the Treasury.
  • The Bureau of Land Management has stopped development of first-of-its-kind regulatory rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands. It has also halted all law enforcement of existing regulations on drilling.
  • The EPA has stopped work on its recently announced greenhouse gas regulations for power plants, which could create increased uncertainty in energy markets.
  • The Department of Energy is slowing review of applications for exporting liquefied natural gas and may have to stop all reviews if the shutdown drags on.
  • DOE run Power Administration’s, such as Bonneville and Southeastern Power, would be run under previous budget allocations until fully expended, at which point each will use a skeleton crew unless a major storm or issue arises and requires additional staff.

Because many believe the current shutdown won’t last long and the long-term impacts will be minimal, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s at stake. The federal government is a cornerstone of energy innovation and its investments are critical to the global economy running on cheap, clean energy just as much as its critical to the lights turning on in today’s fossil-fuel driven economy.

Political gamesmanship and gridlock is already deeply harming America’s ability to innovate breakthrough clean energy technologies due to budget cuts and sequestration. The government shutdown is just the latest — and harshest — reality of a governing body unable to invest in the future. If the shutdown extends to days, significant impacts will certainly be felt, as researchers stay out of the labs and technology projects remain idle. If it extends longer, America’s overall standing as an energy innovation leader begins chipping away. The ball is in Congress’s court not only to turn the governments lights-on and let the countries leading energy innovators get back to work, but also to reverse a staggeringly chilling trend of not aggressively supporting energy innovation.

This article was originally published on the Clean Energy Collective and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Closed sign via Shutterstock

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Matthew Stepp is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.

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