DOE Cut Under Bush Budget Plan

By Megan Scully
States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Assigned to solve the largest energy crisis that Idaho and other western states have faced in recent memory, and handle a continuing task of nuclear waste cleanup, the U.S. Department of Energy received more bad news last week.

The president wants to cut its budget.

A summary of President Bush's 2002 budget proposal indicates that the administration is seeking to slash the department's budget by 3 percent, or $700 million, leaving the department with $19 billion.

The cuts come as Bush tries to weigh budget concerns against goals to dramatically decrease taxes, expand education programs and pay down the debt over the next decade.

The vague outline of the full budget proposal, which will be released in April, does not reveal which energy programs would be targeted for a cut. It does, however, say the administration will evaluate the performance of major projects across the department, including environmental and science programs.

At least one Idaho Republican, Rep. Mike Simpson, is concerned the budget cuts could prevent the federal government from making good on its promise to clean up nuclear waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

"I'm very concerned about possible funding shortfalls at the INEEL, both in the current fiscal year and in the future," Simpson said.

Simpson said he has written Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, urging him to beef up the environmental management program budget, which funds INEEL cleanup.

But Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said he believes the full budget will contain adequate funding for waste management.

"My one priority is to get the appropriate and necessary funding for the Department of Energy and its commitment to Idaho and INEEL for cleanup projects," Craig said. "We're going to make those commitments. That's our responsibility and I am confident that we can get that done."

The future for INEEL cleanup looks a bit shaky, with reports from the Associated Press revealing that the laboratory exceeded its budget this year by $37 million when it tried to meet a deadline to ship nuclear waste out of the state. As many as 370 jobs could hang in the balance.

Despite the cutbacks, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., who sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with Craig, said the budget cut does not portray a weakened resolve by the administration to address the West's growing energy problem.

Rather, Thomas said, Bush's attempts to "move around" and "rearrange" funding priorities demonstrate an effort to turn the department around and find a solution to energy shortages.

"The fact is, we had an Energy Department that hasn't done much in regards to solving the energy problem over the last eight years," Thomas said.

Chris Changery, a spokesman for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., another member of the energy committee, likewise expressed confidence in the administration's ability to deal with energy issues.

"Given that we have a former Texas governor and a former Wyoming congressman (in the White House), Sen. Campbell has always been very confident that this administration is in touch with the West and energy concerns," Changery said.

But on the other side of the aisle, Democrats such as Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a ranking member of the energy committee, fear budget cuts will hinder research and development.

"This proposal appears to cut programs -- such as basic science, renewable energy, and oil and gas research and development -- by about $1 billion," Bingaman said in a statement. "Clearly, we don't know all the details of the plan, nor do we know where a majority of the cuts will fall, but it's hard to see how we can have a comprehensive energy strategy while making cuts to R&;D. "

Budgets for several Energy Department programs, however, would be beefed up.

That includes a 100 percent increase over the next 10 years for the Weatherization Assistance Program, a plan to help low-income families properly insulate their homes in an effort to decrease their energy costs.

The Bush plan focuses on research and development of solar energy and other alternative resources, promising to "winnow out those projects that are less than promising" and direct greater attention to more successful projects.

To further encourage the use of renewable resources, the plan also provides a tax credit for homes and businesses that use rooftop solar equipment or fuel produced from renewable sources.