Bush plans energy cuts in energy efficiency and alternative fuels budgets

Thursday, March 8, 2001

Michael Johnsen

Only days after announcing to the nation that there's an energy crisis, and vowing to "promote alternative energy sources and conservation," President Bush is proposing to slash federal spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy by as much as a third.

Bush's proposal would cut the Department of Energy's renewable fuels and energy efficiency budget by 30 percent to 40 percent, according to Energy Department and White House officials who briefed energy and environmental lobbyists. That will be offset somewhat by an increase in grant programs to help low-income people weatherproof their homes, DOE officials said.

While the president is still weeks away from releasing his official energy policy, his proposed Energy Department provides more clues that the administration's priorities will be increasing oil, natural gas and coal production more than promoting efficient use of current resources or developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

"It's all too soon to tell how we're going to allocate our little more than $19 billion budget," said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis. "We're expecting to deal with belt-tightening." Bush's proposed $19 billion DOE budget is $700 million less than what the department now spends. The DOE is one of the many federal agencies expected to cut budgets in the midst of record surpluses.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels told Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that the cuts are necessary because the president wants to boost spending on so-called "clean coal" technology to make coalm ore efficient and less polluting, according to Bingaman.

The coal technology program pursues a largely dead-end technology. Funding so far has produced few usable results and has nearly $600 million in unspent money, according to a report last year by the congressional General Accounting Office.

Bingaman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, said the proposed cuts in energy efficiency programs don't make sense. "Clearly if we don't dedicate adequate resources to [research and development], we lose out on our ability to benefit from this technology," he said.

Cuts in energy conservation and efficiency programs have fustrated environmental groups and Democrats such as Bingaman. The DOE's $1.2 billion-a-year energy conservation program has already saved about $30 billion and 5.55 quadrillion btus of energy, according to a 2000 Department of Energy report. That's enough to power the entire country for three weeks, and more power than North Carolina, South Carolina and Kansas combined used in 1997.

A 1996 GAO report found that previous Energy Department claims of savings were inflated and had mathematical errors, but it acknowledged that the program had saved billions of dollars.

In an apparent contridiction, an administration official (who requested anonymity) said the White House believes "there hasn't been much mileage" from federal energy efficiency research and development. The president's energy task force, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, will be "taking a close look" at energy efficiency spending, especially in light of the budget plans, the official said.

"I'm flabbergasted that we would be cutting this type of budget at the very moment the country is facing some of the biggest energy problems we've been seeing in decades," said Dan Reicher, who was assistant energy secretary for energy efficiency and renewable fuels in the Clinton administration.

Last year, Reicher's office touted 11 research and development "success stories" for energy efficiency and renewable fuels. They included claims that:

* New window glazing developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory would lower the nation's cooling costs by $1.3 billion by 2010.

* Compact fluorescent light bulbs developed at the same lab and sold since 1998 will save $41 million over seven years.