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President's Lab Visit Generates a Reprieve

A budget gap is quickly closed at a renewable- energy site, allowing 32 workers to be rehired.

February 22, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

GOLDEN, Colo. — President Bush visited a major energy research laboratory Tuesday to promote his administration's campaign to develop alternatives to U.S. reliance on oil, an appearance that inadvertently spotlighted funding problems for such efforts.

Before Bush's stop, it took some quick changes to federal spending plans to undo job cutbacks at the facility, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory -- reductions that would have undercut Bush's message.

On Sunday, the Energy Department said it was rehiring 32 workers, including researchers, at the lab. A budget shortfall had led to the layoffs just days after Bush unveiled his energy program in the State of the Union address Jan. 31.

Opening his remarks to about 200 people gathered in a warehouse for a panel discussion on renewable energy technology, Bush said, "I recognize that there has been some interesting, let me say, mixed signals, when it comes to funding."

He added that he had spoken with Dan Arvizu, the lab's director, "about our mutual desire to clear up any discrepancies in funding, and I think we've cleared up those discrepancies."

The incident underscored the fact that Bush had only recently embraced the sort of research the lab pursues. It also demonstrated the pressures the administration will face as it seeks to decrease the federal budget deficit, maintain tax cuts and pay for the cost of the war in Iraq while embarking on Bush's new energy plan.

When the lab opened in 1977, its focus was on solar energy. Since then, its research has expanded to include advancing the use of wind power, fuel derived from agricultural products and hydrogen and geothermal power to meet the nation's energy needs. It also works on developing energy-efficient buildings.

But the lab has had to fight to maintain its funding. The Energy Department's overall budget for renewable energy programs was cut for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, and the lab was among those affected.

The 32 jobs at the lab -- out of a total of 930 -- were trimmed to help the facility meet a $28-million budget shortfall. Programs affected included research into development of biomass and hydrogen energy.

Robert Noun, a deputy associate director of the lab, said the Energy Department found about $5 million from other accounts to help pay for reinstating the 32 positions. The other $23 million was diverted from subcontracted work at the lab, Noun said.

The lab's funding increased briefly at the start of the Bush administration, reaching a peak of $229.8 million in 2003 before falling each subsequent year. Next year's spending request would begin to reverse that downturn.

The programs at the lab that are part of the president's new program, the Advanced Energy Initiative, are receiving $157 million in 2006; that would increase to $170 million in 2007.

The lab's overall budget, which fell to about $176 million this year, would grow to about $191 million next year if Congress approved the president's budget recommendation, Noun said.

Before the panel discussion, Bush -- in hard hat and protective glasses -- toured an exhibit of the research center's experiments using poplar, cornstalks and other vegetation as sources of energy.

Bush is the second president to visit the facility, a 327-acre campus in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just west of Denver. President Carter -- who had solar panels, long since removed, installed on a White House roof -- visited for a ceremony in 1979 that sought to draw attention to alternatives to fossil fuels.

That presidential stop, like Bush's, occurred during a period when rising oil prices sparked interest in such research.

Bush's tour of the lab concluded a two-day trip to facilities that are searching for the type of technological improvements that would spur greater energy efficiency. On Monday, he visited a plant in Milwaukee that seeks to produce lighter-weight batteries for hybrid gas-electric vehicles and a factory in Auburn Hills, Mich., that makes solar panels.

His tour has been filled with science jargon, and Bush sought to translate some of that Tuesday.

When Arvizu delved into the chemistry involved in converting wood products into simple sugars and then into ethanol fuel, Bush interjected: "I think what he's saying is, one of these days, we're going to take wood chips, put them through the factory, and it's going to be fuel you can put in your car."

Continuing, to laughter, the president said, "That's the difference between the PhD and a C student."

Arvizu holds the doctorate.

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