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Diverting clean-energy funds weakens focus

Friday, August 20, 2010; A22

WHEN SENATE Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the climate bill from consideration this summer, defenders of the Democratic majority pointed out that President Obama and Congress already had approved big investments in green energy, in the economic stimulus bill. One of the more sensible of these programs was expanding by $6 billion a renewable-energy loan guarantee program approved in the 2005 energy bill. In theory, that could result in $60 billion of investment. It's not a solution to America's greenhouse emissions problem. But it would probably fund some worthwhile incremental investment, perhaps even some commercial-scale breakthroughs.

When Congress decided last year to boost -- or, more realistically, time-shift -- auto sales, however, they took $2 billion from the program and gave it to the cash-for-clunkers plan. More recently, when Congress wanted funds ostensibly to keep teachers and other school workers employed, it raided the loan guarantee program again. The state-aid bill that passed this month took $1.5 billion from the fund. Clean energy was not the only priority to suffer. The Democrats also cannibalized the food-stamp program to help municipal employees.

The Energy Department defends the move, saying that while investment in clean energy is necessary, avoiding teacher layoffs is urgent -- even though, as we have noted, the teacher layoff crisis is probably exaggerated and the bill approved isn't the best way to keep good instructors in the classroom.

Supporters also argue that the Energy Department doesn't need to draw on all $6 billion now. It has enough left to cover planned projects and more. So, in effect, the Democrats have moved green-energy spending that would have happened in later years into spending that may boost the economy, and not coincidentally some members' election-year prospects.

Clean-energy advocates rightly worry, though, that Congress has introduced an element of uncertainty into the program that will discourage start-ups from seeking the financing they need to scale up. Indeed, the fact that Congress never paid back what it took for Cash for Clunkers and doesn't have a clear plan to replenish the fund is ominous. At the least, it's another signal that energy policy has become a lower priority for the Democratic majority. With the climate bill dead for now, a drained fund for renewables would be yet another step toward dismantling the Democrats' once ambitious energy agenda.

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