GOP rejects Obama’s call for ‘Sputnik’ moment on clean-energy development

House Republican appropriators have rejected President Obama’s call to have a “Sputnik moment” by ramping up spending on clean energy.

On Thursday, the Appropriations Energy and Water panel moved a bill to full committee that slashes renewable energy funding by 27 percent, or $491 million, to $1.3 billion. That is $1.9 billion below what Obama sought in his budget.

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Environmentalists and unions were angered by the move, which they said will negatively affect the ability of renewable forms of energy to become competitive in the market.

“This is severely crippling,” said Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Yvette Pena Lopes of the BlueGreen Alliance, which brings together unions and environmentalists, said the cuts could cost a massive number of jobs.

The Alliance recently estimated that the funding in the stimulus bill for clean energy saved or created 1 million jobs. With that funding running out and normal appropriations being cut by 27 percent, the order of magnitude of job losses could be similar, she said.

“This is outrageous at a time of 9 percent unemployment,” she said.

Obama, in his State of the Union address, argued that clean energy especially needs to be funded to help the economy.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama said in January, referring to the Russian satellite that prompted the space race. “We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Overall, the Energy and Water appropriations bill spends $30.6 billion, cutting spending by $1 billion compared to current levels and by $5.9 billion compared to Obama’s budget request.

The largest percent cut comes in renewable energy.

The Energy Department’s science budget, which funds basic research, is also cut by $42 million out of a $4.8 billion budget, or $616 million less than Obama requested.

The bill cuts $97 million in solar energy funding, which would be $291 million below the president’s request.

An industry source said China has poured money into solar energy and the United States is at great risk of losing the race to develop next-generation technologies.

Sources said in addition to thin-film solar research, wind rotor research could be devastated by the cuts.

Brian Kauffman of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that Energy Department retrofitting of existing power plants and research into batteries will be hurt if the cuts are enacted. 

“It says a lot about the priorities of this Congress that they would protect billions of dollars of oil company subsidies while gutting investments in clean energy alternatives. Big Oil wants our kids to be as hooked on expensive oil as we are today, and clean energy investments are the only way to break the addiction,” said Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation.

Fuel-efficient vehicle technologies are cut by $46 million, and the bill reduces vehicle technology deployment by more than $200 million. Experts for the auto industry were looking into the bill’s effects on electric car development on Thursday.

The Solar Energy Industry Association said it is waiting for official committee report language before it comments.

Obama’s Office of Management and Budget said it does not have a position on the bill at this stage, but Democrats blasted the cuts to renewable energy in the markup.

“Renewable energy programs in this bill are drastically reduced. We can debate whether renewable energy is an environmental program, and whether it is a market problem. In either case, it is a national security problem,” said Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), a member of the subcommittee.

Republicans argue that the private sector can step up to grow clean energy when government steps back.

“The highest priorities are protected by supporting the Department of Energy’s national defense programs, and by preserving activities that directly support American competitiveness, such as water infrastructure and basic science research,” Energy and Water subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) explained at the markup. “These priorities are balanced by reductions to applied energy research and other areas in which the private sector is most likely to act without federal support.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told The Hill that renewable energy needs to rely on the marketplace for growth.

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“If renewables are to grow, it is because there will be a profit incentive, not because the government spends money,” Rogers said.

“I would welcome a level playing field if such a thing ever existed. The government has a long history of aiding established industries like oil and coal,” Wentworth countered. “Renewable energy does not have the long-term contracts or long-term financing that is available to traditional forms of energy.”

He said the issue is jobs.

“Twenty-nine states have adopted renewable energy standards because they want to generate jobs,” he said. “The bill flies in the face of the State of the Union, where President Obama called for a turn to green energy to create jobs.”

Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), said he does not yet know if Democrats will offer amendments to the bill in full committee. Clean energy advocates said they will look to the Senate and administration to reverse the cuts.