DOE Under Secretaries Grilled on Departmental Reorganization and R&D Priorities
On Jan. 30, the House Science Committee convened to hear testimony from Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar and Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes. The Senate confirmed Dabbar’s and Menezes’ nominations in November and together they have administrative responsibility over all the department’s nonmilitary scientific research and applied R&D activities.
Hearing delves into rationale for DOE reorganization
A focal point of the hearing was DOE’s recent reorganization of Dabbar’s and Menezes’ respective responsibilities.
A 2013 reorganization directed by then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz unified responsibilities for the DOE Office of Science and the department’s applied energy offices under a single “under secretary for science and energy.” Now, those responsibilities have been divided between Dabbar and Menezes. Dabbar has also assumed responsibility from Menezes’ office over DOE’s environmental management programs, while Menezes has assumed responsibility over energy policy.
DOE has justified the move as a way to realign the under secretaries’ responsibilities with the 2005 Energy Policy Act and to better apply the Office of Science’s contract management and technical capabilities to the department’s environmental management efforts.
At the hearing, Menezes expanded on a further justification: the need to focus his office on energy policy and initiatives. He testified,
This realignment allows the department to focus on its priority of energy security through energy dominance and economic competitiveness, placing the energy offices — Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Fossil Energy, Indian Energy, and Nuclear Energy — under the direction of an under secretary of energy. … As the under secretary of energy, I manage a comprehensive energy portfolio that includes the applied laboratories.
In his opening statement, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX), sitting in as the committee’s ranking member, suggested the reorganization could hamper R&D, remarking,
In my view, the reorganization led by Secretary Moniz made a lot of sense. Having a single secretary for science and energy enabled improved collaboration and coordination across DOE’s nonmilitary research enterprise. Specifically, it helped break the historical unproductive stovepipes between DOE’s Office of Science and the applied energy offices.
Dabbar and Menezes also sought to convey that oversight of departmental R&D is collaborative rather than strictly hierarchical. Dabbar noted that the Office of Technology Transitions, which is under his purview, has cross-departmental responsibilities, while Menezes said the “applied” labs do not “report” to him but rather are associated with DOE programs that do.
Witnesses probed on prioritization of ‘early stage’ research
Reps. Randy Weber (R-TX) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA) both asked the under secretaries for definitions of “early stage” research. McNerney complained that the Trump administration is using a distinction between early and late stage work in “a cavalier fashion … as a rationale to cut some programs and fund others.”
Dabbar and Menezes said early stage research is research that industry does not conduct because its risks are too high. Determining the current boundaries of commercial activity entails “going program office by program office,” Dabbar told Weber.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) asked specifically whether battery storage R&D constitutes early stage research. Dabbar replied the field is a “high priority” for DOE and that it is a “a mix of early stage and what I will call mid-stage.” He said the department supports work “at the basic level” as well as work done in partnership with companies such as United Technologies, Dow, and General Motors.
Veasey asked how contact with the private sector influences funding decisions, noting the committee had learned the Trump administration had not consulted industry players in assembling its fiscal year 2018 budget request. Menezes replied that DOE program officers and labs interact with the private sector “as a matter of course” and that those contacts would help “inform our priorities going forward in the next round of budget discussions.”
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 31 that the Trump administration is set to propose cutting the fiscal year 2019 budget of the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 72 percent from current levels — an even deeper cut than in the last request . According to the Post, the White House denied DOE requests for a more modest reduction.
Committee members ask about fusion, other science priorities
Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) probed why the administration sought to cut funding for the DOE Fusion Energy Sciences program in fiscal year 2018. Dabbar said he was not privy to the formulation of the last budget but assured Smith that DOE considers the area “important.”
Dabbar also incorrectly stated that the administration proposed to eliminate funding for ITER in fiscal year 2018 and reported that it is reviewing its support for the project as “part of an overall nuclear review policy,” which has not yet reached any conclusions. He later clarified the proposed U.S. cash contribution to ITER was zero. The administration proposed $63 million in completed components and other “in-kind” contributions.
Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) asked whether DOE would meet the schedule, set by the Obama administration, to assess U.S. ITER policy prior to the release of the fiscal year 2019 budget request. Dabbar replied that, given the range of views on support for ITER, its project management challenges, and unresolved technical and scientific questions, it would take “a little bit more time than the budget rollout,” targeted for Feb. 12. Asked by Foster what scientists are involved in the administration’s review, Dabbar said DOE is providing scientific input, while noting the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy “is not filled at this moment.” He also said that ongoing National Academies efforts would be “inputs” into the process.
Committee members also asked Dabbar and Menezes to push ahead with a variety of other science priorities. Smith suggested DOE should, on its own initiative, implement provisions of the committee’s “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act,” which the House passed a year ago but has not been taken up by the Senate. Weber urged DOE to prepare to establish a fast neutron source user facility, a project supported in several pending bills. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) asked Dabbar to help keep the Proton Improvement Plan-II at Fermilab moving forward.
Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) asked Dabbar about DOE’s willingness to restart its low dose radiation research program, as called for in legislation he has sponsored. Dabbar replied that he himself had been exposed to low dose radiation from nuclear power reactors over the course of his career and that he supports the work. He said, “I know a little bit about the history of this at the department before we were there, and should appropriators here and authorizing committee move that forward, it is an important area, and we have resources to be able to restart that program if it is appropriated.”