Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Old Bait and Switchgrass

Energy independence — breaking our dependence on imported oil — is as heroic and challenging a goal as any we have fought for in the past.
—Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colorado)

I've already questioned the president's sincerity for making us fight for this heroic goal with the right hand of energy conservation tied behind our back. Now, it's time to ask how deep his commitment to investment in renewable energy technology really goes.

The Colorado Springs Gazette reminds us that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which conducts a lot of the government research in the technologies hyped in the State of the Union, just had its budget cut by Congress.

Research into fuel efficiency and other strategies will be slowed at the Golden lab because its budget was slashed by 13 percent this year, prompting the layoff of 30 to 40 of its 900 employees in the next week or two and canceling some subcontractor work.

Bob Noun, the lab’s deputy associate director, said the cuts won’t eliminate projects but will delay some by up to a year. The cuts also could affect long-term operations.

“We have had to eliminate or cut back some very talented research collaborators that we have under subcontract,” he said. “If we lose key people or research partners, it’s very hard to get that expertise back once it’s gone.”

Also, the yo-yo effect of rising and falling budgets discourages the best talent from signing on, he said.

We're not exactly kickstarting critical research, at least at our most experienced and broadly reaching lab. And — although stronger, leadership truly committed reducing consumption as well as developing alternatives would help — Bush isn't the only culprit here.

“Should the funding for those (Bush) initiatives make it through Congress this year, any benefits to the lab will not be felt until the next fiscal year, which begins in October,” Noun said. “Because of that, we still have to absorb this $28 million budget reduction from last year, and that reduction, by the way, is due almost entirely to earmarks made to the Department of Energy programs from which NREL draws funding.”

Notably, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., earmarked about $33 million for projects in his home state. Such projects can be handed to agencies or companies without scientifically proven research methods.

President Bush on Tuesday called for limiting such earmarks, a move that would benefit the lab, Noun said.

It will be worth watching. Does new money support established labs and research already under way, allowing it to accelerate? Or does it flow to various Congressional districts based on the usual principles of pork? Or worse, is the same money shuffled from one place to another, disrupting relationships and slowing progress while giving the appearance of action?

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