Short-Term Spending Bill Could Hurt Clean Energy Programs

In the first week back from August recess members of Congress managed to tackle three top policy priorities: funding for Hurricane Harvey recovery, raising the debt ceiling so the government doesn’t default on its debts and funding the federal government so that the services federal employees provide will continue beyond September 30, 2017. While this is only a short reprieve and we will be right back here in December, the fact is that Congress and the president acted on important priorities and avoided a feared government shutdown.

Still though there are growing concerns that in the intervening months clean energy innovation may still be at even more risk than the current budget proposals floating around Capitol Hill would suggest. That's why the NRDC Action Fund is asking you to tell your Senators to stand strong against Trump's disastrous funding cuts

Earlier this year President Trump submitted a budget proposal to Congress for Fiscal Year 2018 that dramatically cut funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 70 percent. The House of Representatives then proposed and passed a bill that cut the same office by nearly 50 percent while the Senate countered with proposed cuts of only 7 percent. But any cut is too much. It is absurd to consider abandoning clean energy progress by eviscerating federal investments in core efficiency and renewable energy programs that are delivering meaningful results—driving job creation, economic growth, and increased energy affordability.

Will DOE follow Congressional direction?

Congress has funded the government through what is called a continuing resolution or “CR” that will expire on Dec. 8, 2017. The growing concern is that even though Congress appropriated robust clean energy funding levels for the next three months, the Trump administration may find another way to starve these programs of the resources they need. Specifically, we are concerned that without detailed instructions from Congress, the Trump administration will “slow walk” or simply not spend the funds Congress has made available. The Office of Management and Budget is set to issue formal guidance to agencies on spending during the CR by the end of the month, before the fiscal year begins.

Based on his budget proposal, we already know that Trump wants to kill or maim these programs. NRDC and other clean energy champions want to make sure that if Congress throws these programs a fiscal life-line, the administration won’t do an end-run around lawmakers.

That is why NRDC and 18 like-minded groups and companies sent a letter to Congress to urge senators and congressmen to keep the administration from playing games with fiscal year 2018 funds for vital energy efficiency programs. The signatories—including the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the U.S. Green Building Council—say they “have become increasingly concerned” that a continuing resolution to keep the government running for a few more months or an omnibus budget package for FY 2018 could “give the administration the discretion—or the appearance of discretion—to suspend or discontinue programs, activities or projects in the absence of clear direction from Congress.”

That’s not only bad policy, it’s potentially illegal. The Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires federal agencies to spend lawfully appropriated funds on the programs for which they were provided, as House Science Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, warned Perry in April.

Stakeholders are urging DOE’s appropriations committees to launch a preemptive strike by specifically instructing agencies to fund and carry out these programs as Congress intended, and to keep Congress in the loop about how they are spending our tax dollars. While this level of direction from Congress would be unprecedented, it may be necessary in order to ensure that the administration stays the course and issues requests for information, funding opportunity announcements, and grants and contracts to the national labs and with private industry.

Otherwise, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars that support and sustain clean energy may be at risk. Starving programs that have helped drive down the cost of efficient lighting, wind and solar power, and electric vehicle technology would break a crucial connection between private companies and public research that is delivering incredible value to American people.

DOE spokesperson suggests that concerns are resolved. But Congress has every reason to be skeptical, considering the bad faith the Department of Energy showed earlier this year, delaying the release of already appropriated funds to help low-income families make their homes more energy efficient and to invest in innovative technology projects through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Pressure from Congress, including from Johnson and from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and 27 other Democrats, eventually got the ARPA-E money flowing. And the Senate subcommittee that controls DOE’s budget put the department on notice that it must distribute next year’s weatherization grants no later than 60 days after its budget is finalized.

The risk of waiting to see if Energy Secretary Rick Perry tries to pull another fast one would be devastating to communities that rely such grants that help save low-income families money on their energy bills and keep American businesses at the forefront of technological breakthroughs and innovation. These worthwhile programs are consumer-friendly, job-creating engines that should be expanded, not eliminated. Congress should make sure they continue to get funding and Trump shouldn’t be allowed to jeopardize that. Such congressional leadership is needed not only for the Department of Energy but throughout the federal government.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Noll

Legislative Director, Energy & Transportation program

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