Where's the Fracking Support in Obama's Budget?

WASHINGTON – Senators from both parties issued strong objections Thursday over what they view as the Obama administration’s failure to provide sufficient funds for fracking research in the proposed 2014 Department of Energy budget.

During a budget hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also agreed that the $28.4 billion spending package doesn’t invest sufficient funds in support of alternative energy sources like hydropower.

Wyden, the committee chairman, said many of the cuts contained in the president’s budget were “clearly misguided.”

“I remain concerned about some of the investment decisions that I’ve seen in the Department of Energy budget because I don’t think they truly reflect the level playing field that’s needed to promote choice and competition in energy and particularly encourage energy investment,” Wyden said.

Murkowski, the ranking Republican who supported Wyden in all of his objections, said she was disappointed in the administration’s document and insisted that too many potentially rewarding energy sources are ignored.

The administration, Murkowski said, is constantly emphasizing its “all of the above” approach to energy sources “but I don’t see that necessarily reflected in the budget here.”

“Instead it would appear there are still the favorites, even amongst the renewables and the vehicle technologies,” Murkowski said. “One example is the water power account is cut despite the fact that hydropower is by far our largest source of clean, renewable energy.”

Daniel B. Poneman, the deputy secretary and chief operating officer for the Department of Energy, defended the initiative, asserting that the budget’s research initiatives “will help power America’s great innovation machine to accelerate energy breakthroughs and create jobs.”

“The administration recognizes the government’s role in fostering scientific and technological breakthroughs and has committed significant resources to ensure America leads the world in the innovations of the future,” Poneman said.

As an example, he cited the proposed $5.2 billion funding for the Office of Science to support basic research “that could lead to new discoveries and help solve our energy challenges.”

“These funds support progress in materials science, basic energy science, advanced computing and more,” he said. “They also provide America’s researchers and industries with state-of-the-art tools to ensure they stay at the cutting edge of science.”

But Wyden expressed particular concern about research into hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking, a method implemented to reach natural gas deposits by drilling into the earth’s surface using pressurized liquid and breaking into shale. Fracking has resulted in record-high levels of natural gas production.

The proposed budget devotes $12 million toward research on natural gas technology – a 15 percent cut.

“While this has certainly been a big plus for our economy and benefits our country in a whole host of ways, valid concerns have been raised as to how safely this continued development can be done,” Wyden said. “These environmental issues in my mind have got to be addressed and they’ve got to be addressed right.”

The investment in research in natural gas extraction “would be returned many times over in savings that would be accrued in environmental cleanup and revenue from further development,” Wyden said. “So there’s a lot on the line. And it’s hard to say look at the size of the stakes and then see this really very modest, disproportionately small effort put into research.”

The combination of increased natural gas use, energy efficiency and renewable energy has reduced the nation’s carbon emissions to their lowest levels since 1994, Wyden said, emphasizing the need to make sure hydraulic fracturing is environmentally sound.

“Abundant, low cost natural gas also provides our country with a competitive advantage over competitors in Europe and Asia whose costs are four or five times the costs of our manufacturers,” he said.

Poneman acknowledged that natural gas has proved to be “a game changer for this country,” jumping from 2 percent of the nation’s energy source to 35 percent in a short period of time.

“We are investing in the R&D where it’s helpful,” Poneman said. “There is leverage in the fact that we are not doing this alone,” maintaining that the agency is teaming up with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior to deal with fracking.

“We are making hard decisions on where the dollars go but I want to assure you that the dollars we have dedicated to this technology we believe are the right dollars,” he said.

Murkowski was equally perplexed by the department’s approach to hydropower, saying it was among the “forgotten renewables” that never received sufficient funding from DOE. The potential, she said, “is so untapped” yet “it doesn’t seem like a priority.”

Poneman said the proposed budget actually increases funding for hydropower development.

“It still looks pretty meager when you compare it to wind and solar,” Murkowski said.

Also on Thursday, the committee in a 21-1 vote approved and sent to the Senate floor the nomination of Dr. Ernest Moniz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist, to serve as the nation’s 12th secretary of Energy, succeeding Steve Chu, who resigned.

In an unusually quick session, Wyden said Moniz, the subject of a confirmation hearing last week, is “more than up to the challenge” of wrestling with the nation’s energy needs, noting that he will use “the best science and the most current data in considering the issues.”

Moniz, Wyden said, might actually be the first energy secretary, should he be confirmed, “who instead of having to confront energy shortages and scarcity would instead oversee an era of abundant carbon reducing natural gas and dramatic growth of renewable energy technologies.”

Murkowski urged other Republicans on the panel to support Moniz.

“I think he will focus on an energy policy that is affordable, abundant, clean, diverse and secure,” she said. “He recognizes that energy is good. He’s thoughtful, he’s considered.”

The lone holdout was Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who expressed concern that the administration’s plan to cut funding for a project to transform plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel will adversely affect his state.

“As his resume indicates, Dr. Moniz is a well-educated and experienced nominee. However, his lack of clarity on the future of the MOX program – a project critical to South Carolina and to the safe disposal of 34 tons of weapons grade plutonium, in keeping with our international treaties – led me to a ‘no’ vote today,” Scott said. “Clarity is something all too rare in Washington, and, as of today, Dr. Moniz’s position on the future of the MOX program is murky at best. Given what is at stake, that is unacceptable.”