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Energy efficiency, aid to poor suffer in priority shuffle

February 06, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Under a 2005 energy bill signed by President Bush, an array of programs was promised more money.

But when Bush unveiled his new budget Monday, some of these programs -- including energy assistance for low-income families and energy efficiency -- lost out.

The promises of more federal dollars clashed with fiscal reality as a deficit-minded Bush sent his first budget to a Democratic-controlled Congress. The president's spending proposals are certain to provoke fights as energy policy moves back to prominence on Capitol Hill amid heightened concerns about global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Bill Prindle, acting executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, said Monday that the president's budget "sacrifices important efficiency programs."

"Efficiency is the first fuel in the race for energy security," Prindle said, urging Congress to scrap the president's proposals. "If we don't get our energy demand under control, none of the president's or anyone else's clean-energy proposals will be able to catch up."

Although the proposed $1.24-billion budget for the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is slightly higher than the administration proposed in its last budget, it represents a cut of $237 million, or 16%, from the amount proposed for the current year in a bill moving through Congress.

"The good news is that Congress has signaled its intent to make energy-efficiency programs a priority, notwithstanding the budget request of the administration," said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

Bush proposed more money for some of his favorite initiatives: promoting technology to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, and for ways to revive the nuclear-power industry, which has been at a virtual standstill since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Harrisburg, Pa.

And he followed through on his State of the Union proposal to reduce gasoline consumption, calling for more spending to develop home-grown alternative fuels -- such as ethanol made from wood chips, switch grass and other biomass. That proposal appears to enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, especially from farm-state lawmakers.

Drawing the most criticism were proposals to cut the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to about $1.8 billion, from the nearly $2.2 billion expected to be allocated in 2007, and to cut the weatherization program -- which helps the poor insulate their homes -- from the proposed $242 million for the current fiscal year to $144 million.

Nick Papas, a spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, said Bush was sending a message to families who receive energy assistance: "Stock up on blankets."

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) called Bush's proposed cut in funding for the energy-assistance program "simply unacceptable," underscoring how energy policy often divides along climate zones rather than party lines.

David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation, said Bush's proposal "unwisely elects energy experimentation over conservation."

"We certainly need new breakthroughs, yet it is not wise to invest only in risky, long-range experiments and neglect more immediate and proven home energy-saving upgrades," he said.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, suggested Bush should add a zero to his proposed $9 billion in loan guarantees for alternative-energy projects. Bush's $9 billion, Domenici said, "means we can only guarantee loans for a couple of nuclear power plants or a couple of coal-gasification plants."

Among the criticisms directed at Bush, a former oilman, was that he proposes to eliminate funding for research and development of oil and natural gas. That would leave coal as the only fossil fuel eligible for Energy Department research.

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), complained that this would stymie production from new sources.

"The key players for natural gas onshore in the United States are independent producers," he said. "They don't have R&D departments, and they are too small to be able to afford to start ones, regardless of the price of oil and gas."

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, praised the administration for proposing to repeal a financial incentive for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that was included in the 2005 energy bill.

The president's budget document states simply: "Additional royalty relief for oil and gas exploration is unwarranted in today's price environment."

"Amen to that," Rahall said.


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