Committee on Science and Technology
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Op-Eds :: November 2, 2009

The Path Toward Our Energy Future [Gordon]

Published in APS’s Capitol Hill Quarterly, Copyright 2009.

By House Science & Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (TN-6th)

The path toward lowering our carbon emissions, meeting our growing need for energy, and growing new sectors of the economy—and the jobs they provide—is through the research and development (R&D) of new energy technologies.  

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 that the House of Representatives approved in July included provisions to help our nation continue on that path. Before this, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, at the Department of Energy (DOE), was authorized in the 2007 America COMPETES Act and finally funded through the Recovery package. 

To create the jobs of the future in the U.S., we need to ensure the U.S. leads in developing the transformational technologies that will make it possible for us to meet our growing need for energy without a corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions. ARPA-E will bring together the best and the brightest from the private sector, academia, and national labs. ARPA-E has the flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward energy technology development at any stage, from basic research to late-stage technology development. The agency is on track to make its first round of awards this month. The first Funding Opportunity Award yielded thousands of applicants – well exceeding expectations. This is clear evidence of a strong, pent-up demand across the U.S. for these sorts of transformational research opportunities.

The House version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act will direct 1.05 percent of the carbon allowances to fund ARPA-E; the amount is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to be approximately $650 million by 2012 and will increase thereafter.

However, while I am – and will remain – one of the staunchest advocates for increased investments in R&D, there are problems left to resolve in funding R&D through carbon revenues.

First, there are a few legal barriers to moving funds between federal agencies outside of the Appropriations process. Put simply, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may not be able to pay directly for DOE programs.    

While it isn’t an optimal scenario, ARPA-E and other externally-focused energy R&D models may provide the possibility of funding grant recipients directly from the revenue from carbon allocations collected by the EPA. By choosing projects with hard start- and end-dates and funding them with cash on hand, we could also avoid the pitfalls of making long-term projects and programs reliant on an unpredictable funding stream. No one knows what the price of carbon will be, let alone the total revenue from carbon allowances. We cannot have effective long-term R&D projects or programs if our scientists are susceptible to potentially inconsistent or boom-bust funding cycles.

Another concern of mine is that, even if we solve these problems and determine viable ways to fund R&D with revenue from selling carbon allowances, there is no guarantee that this will not decrease total funding normally allocated to R&D in the Appropriations process. Appropriators have the unenviable job of making funding decisions when there is always more need than money. We all have been successful in recent years in communicating the importance of investment in science. However, science funding may not always be as high a priority as some of us feel it should be, and DOE research funding has to compete against other important priorities, including protecting Americans from dangerous floods to safeguarding our nuclear stockpile.  

While I have – and will continue, as strongly and as often as I can – to make the case for increases in science and R&D funding as the path to reinvigorating our economy, putting Americans to work, meeting our growing energy needs, and understanding and preventing climate change, the fact remains that, with the recession and the deficit, our national budget is likely to be very tight for the foreseeable future. If our science agencies receive funding from carbon revenue, that funding may be taken into account during the Appropriation process. We have to approach this knowing there is a real risk that the additional funding could put in jeopardy the relatively steady, predictable stream of funding we have worked so hard to ensure.

While I’m encouraged by the progress that has already been made, there is still a lot of work to be done to determine the best mechanism to fund R&D through a climate bill. I look forward to seeing the Senate’s action on the bill, and to working through conference. 

We will only be able to reduce our carbon emissions and meet our growing demands for energy through the development and adoption of new technologies. Using the revenue from the caps on carbon to fund R&D is absolutely appropriate; however, we have to figure out appropriate mechanisms for utilizing the funds. I want to make sure we are funding R&D in a sustainable manner. Our nation needs long-term, comprehensive R&D programs, with strategic roadmaps, and a balanced portfolio of near-term, mid-term, and long-term goals, and robust funding. For that, our agencies need predictable budgets and reliable funding.  

Congressman Gordon serves as the Chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee and is also a senior member of House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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