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Energy Pork: Why the Green Future May Take a While

Stephen Power has a good story in the Wall Street Journal that explains a lot about why America’s clean energy future may be a while in coming.  Power notes that although Energy Secretary Steve Chu set out this year to begin reshaping America's energy future with a network of highly-focused, results-oriented research labs, lawmakers have been busy with business-as-usual. He reports that instead of fully funding Dr. Chu’s request, the energy spending bill sets aside millions of dollars for a scattered array of members’ pet projects while shaving $1.3 billion off the $28.4 billion President Obama had requested for the Department of Energy (DOE).  Severely slashed was Chu’s request to fund eight new “energy innovation hubs,” at a cost of $280 million, although the legislation does allow the department to fund three of the hubs, largely with money from other parts of DOE’s budget.  

As to what the nation will get instead of five additional hubs modeled on DOE’s innovative Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs), let’s see.

Power reports that Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W. Va.) secured $1.25 million for a study of coal liquefaction in China, although environmentalists say emission associated with liqufied coal exacerbate climate change.  Rep. Todd Tiahrt, (R., Kan.), meanwhile, obtained $1.5 million for the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University to allow small businesses to take advantage of research by the institute on composite materials.  That project was one of several called out in a recent “pork alert” by Citizens Against Government Waste.  And for that matter, Reps. Donald Payne (D., N.J.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R., N.J.) made sure the appropriations bill allocated $1.5 million for new air conditioning at the Newark Museum, which they maintain will help the facility become a model of energy efficiency.  That particular project was also flagged by the anti-pork group.  Add it all up, with $1 million earmarked here and $2 million there, and the Energy and Water will provide some $445 million for “congressionally directed projects” (i.e. earmarks)—more than enough, if it were redirected toward Dr. Chu’s more considered plans, to fully fund a potentially game-changing experiment in new energy innovation platforms.

In short, the story of why the nation will not see the start-up in the next year of the full complement of energy innovation hubs is the story of how, too often, the logic of Congress cuts against the logic of strategy and focus. Whether it be transportation investments, workforce training money, or energy innovation, Congress is hard-wired to spread a little around to everybody rather than concentrate scarce resources to maximize their impact.  Too often the nation’s future is the loser.