Six years ago federal experts decided to build a pilot plant to test a process for "cleaning up coal" - taking the pollutants out of coal before it is burned.

Everyone agreed that a successful solvent refined coal plant, as it was called could contribute significantly to meeting American's energy needs. The only question: where would be plant thebuilt?

The Office of Coal Research - now a part of the new Department of Energy - finally chose a site at Fort Lewis, Wash. In one way that seemed strange: the state of Washington has virtually no coal industry. But to insiders it did not seem strange at all.

Fort Lewis was in the congressional district of then-rep. Julia Butler Hansen (D-Wash.), and she in turn was chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that controlled the coal research office's budget.

Hansen has since retired, but the solvent refined coal plant is still running strong, fed with coal shipped in from out of state. So far, the government has spent $65 million on the plan and has produced what one DOE officials calls "unanticipated results" - a coal-cleaning process that actually shows some promise.

Energy research and development has become one of the fastest growing and most touted part of the federal budget. It now consumes $3 billion a year, 5 times what it did just five years ago. Some extremely important things are at stake in this energy R and D: future economic growth and self-sufficiency, for example.

But there are also lesser items at stake. The energy R-and-D budget, the largest in civilian government, is shaped not just by scientific and economic factors, but by the familiar congressional politics of pork.

"It's in the great tradition of the Brooklyn Navy Yard," DOE Under Secretary John F. O'Leary says of the R-and-D budget during a wry moment.

"What we are finding here is not unique to energy," he adds, noting, for example, that Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana have always had a generous share of military spending due to efforts of high-ranking southern Appropriations and Armed Services Committee members.

Energy experts outside the administration also agree.

Energy experts outside the administration also agree.

Chester Cooper of the Institute for Energy Analysis says that energy is "trendy now - and there are a lot of people trying to get in on the gravy train."

The chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, Rep. Mike McCormack (D-Wash.), says "The basic goal is to have a quality, comprehensive energy R-and-D program, and spreading it around makes good sense politically and scientifically - but sometimes the politics spoils it."

Obviously, the aim of energy R and D has not been to waste government funds, and R and D, after all, implies a measure of risk. But, as the game is now played, with the stakes so much higher, legislators are scrambling to ensure that their constituents have a "fair share" of the energy largess.

The path to the energy pork barrel is well worn, lined with monuments to "siting" politics.

One example is Montana and magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) - a technology that is expected to save energy by making electrical generation more efficient. These two are so synonymous in research circles that one nationally respected scientist describes DOE's MHD effort as "a Butte of a program."

Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) agreed, and saw that his state got a MHD facility that will cost $20 million when completed. Mansfield's devotion to MHD has been perpetuated by Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), who argued in vain in the Senate last year for a $50 million increase in MHD research, ominously warning that without it the Soviets would widen their lead in MHD.

Nor is Montana an isolated example. The map of the old Atomic Energy Commission's national laboratories - now under DOE - was a near geographic rendering of district from the old Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Even though the committee and the commission have been disbanded, the constituencies persist.

One of the largest conflicts in R-and-D politics facing the Carter administration is the heated battle over the future of the solar energy program. Solar energy research has the twin political advantage [WORD ILLEGIBLE] both expensive and in [WORD ILLEGIBLE]

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The battle is not over how much should be spent - both groups are bullish on solar - but over which states get it.

Congress in 1974 passed a law calling for the establsihment of a national SERI. More than 40 states mounted competitive efforts to win the national site. Following a long and relatively a political site selection effort, the Energy Research and Development Administration - latter absorbed by DOE - designated Golden as site of the national SERI.

But a number of states which lost out, including Georgia, Massachusetts and Minnesota, continued campaigns to win funds for regional SERIs.

The fight poses prickly political choices for DOE Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr.

Haskell, whose difficult re-election effort would not be hurt by a solar victory, says, "The competition is basically with Tip O'Neill - the legislative history is very clear, there should be one unit." Asked what the source of the controversy is, Haskell says simply, "My understanding is that Massachusetts wanted a part of the action."

O'Neill, Tsongas, and members of Congress from Minnesota and Georgia, which also have regional SERIs, have been pressuring Schlesinger to downgrade the role of the national SERI at Golden.

"O'Neill told Schlestinger that he wanted to see the decision made on the merits, but that he wanted Schlesinger to be aware of the benefits from a New England SERI," says one senior-House aide.

McCormack says that creation of the regional SERIs "was nothing but a political sop," the effort under way to establish SERIs led by Tsongas is an effort "to give enthusiastic friends bags of money to spend on solar energy."

Frank Press, the president's science adviser, is phlegmatic about the SERI battle, saying, "That is Congress doing their thing. There is always competition - it's a case of regional congressional interests doing their job."

DOE's John Deutch, who heads the agency's R-and-D program, says the agency will make a decision on SERIs by May.

One key Senate staffer said the deliberations are awkward for Schlesinger, because "What he will be looking for is a political way out for all personalities - rather than making a decision based on what is best for the national solar program. They are going to have to end up appeasing personalities."

Deutch, along with O'Leary and Under Secretary Dale Myers, are all highly regarded on Capitol Hill and in the research community as dedicated to preventing the R-and-D program from falling prey to politics.

The ultimate objectives in the R-and-D sweepstakes is a facility that not only requires extensive scientific activity but tens of millions of construction and operating dollars.

Last year's jackpot winner was Rep. Jerome A. Ambro (D-N.Y.). He guided through the first money for "Isabelle," a 400-billion-electron-volt intersecting storage accelerator - that is, a fusion experiment.

To be constructed in Ambro's district at the Brookhaven National Laboratories, Isabelle has been described as the "high point" of DOE's R-and-D program. It also has been the darling of the high-energy physics community for years.

Ambro was able to steer the first appropriations through the congressional pipeline - worth about $5 million - by winning McCormack's support. McCormack had something of an obligation to Ambro. He had taken funding for D-LINAC, another fusion experiment, away from Brookhaven to Hanford, in his Washington district.

"Isabelle is the best high-energy physics program in the world," says an enthusiastic Ambro. "It will restore our primacy in high-energy physics, and produce a number of Nobel laureates."

Ambro's achievement, however, goes far beyond the $5 million jackpot of 1977. It was just a start. DOE says that, when finished, Isabelle will cost a quarter of a billion dollars.