Energy budget, good for Oak Ridge sites, heads to Senate floor

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to advance the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee’s 2018 budget to the Senate Floor Thursday.

The bill is favorable to Oak Ridgeoverall, roughly maintaining or increasing several programs that were on the chopping block.

It has funds for supercomputing, including a $40 million increase for the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. It also supports ongoing environmental cleanup at Oak Ridge sites and the construction of Y-12 National Security Complex’s Uranium Processing Facility.

The budget rejects most of President Donald Trump’s proposals, which legislators have called “unrealistic,” and “impractical.”

Overall, it would fund the Department of Energy and other water programs at $38.4 billion, an increase of $4 billion over the president’s proposal and $900 million from the House of Representatives appropriations bill put forth last week.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. drafted the bill with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. in the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.

Alexander said he hopes the bill will be one of the first considered by the full Senate this year.

“Reaching an agreement was not easy,” Alexander said at the subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “For fiscal year 2018, under the Budget Control Act spending caps, Congress has less money to appropriate than last year.”

“This legislation approved (Thursday) by the full Senate Appropriations Committee contains record levels of funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to improve our nation’s water infrastructure, the Office of Science, which conducts basic science and energy research, and ARPA-E, which supports transformational, high-impact energy technologies,” Alexander stated in a Thursday news release.

The committee hearing was senators’ first opportunity to amend the bill before it hits the Senate floor.

Senators agreed on two amendments regarding the Army Corps of Engineers and the use of federal waters in hemp production.

Feinstein, who raised concerns Tuesday about slanted government support for defense programs over scientific research, proposed an amendment that would even the playing field.

If it had passed, the amendment would have ensured non-defense energy programs would receive an extra $2.8 billion, should Congress again increase the amount of money available next year beyond the budget cap.

It also would have allocated an extra $200 million in defense spending to focus on cleaning up excess facilities which currently cost Oak Ridge entities about $26 million per year to maintain.

Ultimately, the amendment failed by one vote.

After discussion, the bill passed the appropriations committee in its entirety, in a sweeping 30-1 vote.

In its current state, the bill budgets a record $5.5 billion to the DOE’sOffice of Science, more than both the House and the President’s budget request asked for. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be funded at $1.9 billion, an approximate $1.2 billion increase over Trump’s proposal.

One program, ARPA-E, would be pardoned from death row. Both the House and the President proposed cutting the agency, which funds high risk, high-impact research projects. The Senate has proposed funding the program at a record $330 million.

The National Nuclear Security Administration would receive $13.7 billion, including $1.7 billion for nuclear stockpile life extension programs.

The proposed increases in defense spending and some science programs come at a cost, however.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. raised concerns over the elimination of DOE’s Title 17 loan program, which was created with bipartisan support in 2005 to fund first-of-kind technologies. According to Coons and Feinstein, it has put out $32 billion with less than a three percent loss ratio. Coons said the program has also created more than 50,000 jobs.

The Senate also once again recommended that the United States withdraw from ITER, an international experiment to create a thermonuclear reactor that produces more energy than it uses.

The project, which is far behind schedule, has garnered less government interest in recent years.

The US ITER office in Oak Ridge received just half the $100 million in funding it requested for Fiscal Year 2017, resulting in the layoff of approximately 20 contractors. Program staff expect the 2018 request will also be cut in half.

Right now the United States is paying the minimum nine percent to remain a partner in ITER. Quitting the partnership would save about $50 million.

The bill also includes up to $78 million for continued construction of the Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga.

Additionally, it has $40 million for research and development to support nuclear reactors and $24 million for the Center for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors at ORNL.

And it continues to fund regional commissions, including $142 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission and $25 million for the Delta Regional Authority. The administration had proposed eliminating those commissions.

(c)2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)