White House seeks 72 percent cut to clean energy research, underscoring administration’s preference for fossil fuels

Washington Post By Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson February 1, 2018

Filipinos ride energy efficient electric tricycles during a test drive in Taguig city, south of Manila, Philippines, 12 January 2018. The Department of Energy (DOE) donated 200 units of energy efficient electric tricycles to the affected residents of war-torn Marawi as part of its efforts to help rebuild the city. Photo by FRANCIS R. MALASIG/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (Malasig/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock/Malasig/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is poised to ask Congress for deep budget cuts to the Energy Department’s renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, slashing them by 72 percent overall in fiscal 2019, according to draft budget documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Many of the sharp cuts would probably be restored by Congress, but President Trump’s budget, due out in February, will mark a starting point for negotiations and offer a statement of intent and policy priorities.

The document underscores the administration’s continued focus on the exploitation of fossil fuel resources — or, as Trump put it in his State of the Union address, “beautiful clean coal” — over newer renewable technologies seen as a central solution to the problem of climate change.

The Energy Department had asked the White House for more modest spending reductions to the renewable and efficiency programs, but people familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share unfinished budget information, said the Office of Management and Budget had insisted on the deeper cuts.

The cuts would also be deeper than those the Trump administration sought for the current fiscal year but was unable to implement because of the budget impasse in Congress. The federal government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions that have maintained existing spending. The current continuing resolution expires Feb. 8.

President Trump applauded his administration’s energy policy at a rally in Pensacola, Fla. on Dec. 8. (The Washington Post)

Spending for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is set at $2.04 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends Oct. 1. Last year, the administration asked for st $636.1 million, a decline of more than two-thirds, although Congress did not implement the request. For 2019, the administration’s draft proposal would lower that request even further, to $575.5 million.

The document also suggests substantial staff cuts, down from 680 in the enacted 2017 budget to 450 in 2019.

“It shows that we’ve made no inroads in terms of convincing the administration of our value, and if anything, our value based on these numbers has dropped,” said one EERE employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal budget information.

Energy Department spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in an email that “anyone who questions this Administration’s commitment to an all-of-the-above energy approach simply look at our record.”

She said that “though it may not fit into the narrative of the environmental lobby and their pundits, the truth is that Secretary Perry believes that there is a role for all fuels—including renewables–in our energy mix.”

It is unclear whether the document represents a final budget proposal or will be subject to last-minute negotiation and revision.

One person familiar with the negotiating process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe what the person had learned, said that the budget request had been lowered after negotiations with the Office of Management and Budget, and may have been lowered further because of a desire to channel more funding toward nuclear energy, a favored subject for Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

DOE spokesperson Hynes defended the department’s record, saying that last year it “awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to solar and wind energy.”

But the funding requests for next year represent a double whammy for renewable energy after the administration last week imposed tariffs on imported solar panels.

The tariff action e is likely to decrease the installation volumes of solar energy in coming years, according to industry analysts.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is perhaps best known for the solar “SunShot” program, which strives to drive down the price of solar energy.

The large bulk of its funding is deployed on research, most frequently at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Co. The vast majority of the laboratory’s $293 million budget in 2017 came from EERE.

But it is far from clear that the cuts would become a reality.

“The president suggests a budget, but, under the Constitution, Congress passes appropriations bills,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), an influential appropriator on energy issues, said in a statement.

The draft document says the administration will once again ask Congress to abolish the weatherization program, which has trained thousands of workers and helped reduce utility bills for thousands of homeowners.The budget proposal would also eliminate state energy grants. The budget would ax research in fuel efficient vehicles by 82 percent, bioenergy technologies by 82 percent, advanced manufacturing by 75 percent and solar energy technology by 78 percent.

The proposal would cut funds for electric car technologies and fuel-efficient vehicles — at $307 million currently the biggest of the program areas — to $56 million in 2019.

Money for bioenergy technologies have gone to research renewable fuels from nonfood sources.

The plan would also chop spending on more efficient building technologies and research into geothermal, hydro and wind power.

The renewable and efficiency programs represent about 7 percent of the Energy Department’s overall budget. The majority of the department’s budget goes to maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and cleaning up sites contaminated by federal nuclear programs.