President Reagan and his budget hawks may have achieved their broad goals for the Department of Energy when Congress passed its big budget bill, but members worked at the margins to shift the department's priorities in subtle ways.
Among the winners in the bill were programs funding solar energy, conservation and small-scale hydropower, while one of the administration's pet energy sources -- nuclear fission -- was a partial loser. "I don't know if you can call it a resounding defeat for the White House," said a staffer for the House Science and Technology Committee, "but it's easy to see that Congress wasn't bowing and scraping either."
Despite Congress's efforts, the authorization bill is far from a return to the funding levels the department enjoyed during the Carter administration. According to Congressional Budget Office figures, the budget conferees added a little over $500 million to the administration's request for $5.1 billion in the 1982 DOE budget.
The comparable fiscal 1981 amount was $8.8 billion.
The administration budget request presented last March proposed drastic changes in the Energy Department's role and emphasis. Administration budget staffers professed to adopt a new approach of funding only those technologies with high risks and a fairly long-term payoff. High oil prices would give sufficient incentive for the private sector to develop other alternative energy sources, administration spokesmen argued.
This ideology was used to justify heavy increases for nuclear fission and fusion projects at the same time that authorizations for solar and geothermal power and conservation projects were being slashed by as much as two-thirds from their 1981 levels. But the administration's proposals did not emerge unscathed from their encounter with pork-barrel politics and congressional policy preferences.
The Clinch River, Tenn., breeder reactor is one whipping boy that survived. The pride of Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), Clinch River had escaped President Carter's attempts to give it the ax and was also funded at $254 million in the Reagan request. Still, Congress managed to cut $26 million of what one House staffer called "fat" in the trouble-plagued project.
House and Senate conferees gave the administration a taste of its own budget-cutting medicine by slashing $26 million from DOE's $273 million administrative budget, including a personnel cut in the office of Secretary James B. Edwards. "We thought it was sort of a political move," said a staffer with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which led the fight against an even larger reduction in the House version.
Although the legislators made few other significant cuts in the administration's DOE request, they did make some significant additions. However, in a televised interview earlier this month, Edwards suggested he might not spend all the money that was authorized.
"If we can't spend it efficiently and effectively, certainly we are not going to do that . . . . We execute the wishes of the Congress, within the framework that they give us money to work with. But I don't think they mean for us to spend all the money just because they give it to us."
One of the largest of Congress' budget additions was for conservation, an area in which the administration had argued that higher oil prices would do the job on their own. The conferees authorized $376 million for state and local governments' conservation programs, with $175 million earmarked to weatherize homes of poor people.
The administration had requested a total of only $195 million. Under the administration's plan, weatherization would have had to compete with other local projects for a shrunken pool of community development block grants administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The reconciliation bill also includes $1.9 billion in block grants to help low-income families pay higher energy costs, and 15 percent of that amount could be used for weatherization.
In solar energy, the big increases went for long-range research on photovoltaic cells -- which convert sunlight directly into electricity -- and technologies such as wind and wave power.
Total solar authorizations were increased 57 percent over the administration's request, to $303 million. Still, even in the areas benefiting most from congressional additions, authorized funding was far below the level during 1981. Congressional sources said the administration largely carried the day when it argued that existing tax credits for solar power projects would be plenty of encouragement for solar.
Substantial extra money also went into development of synthetic fossil fuels, or synfuels. The conferees provided that $135 million that was not spent during the 1981 fiscal year be spent to finish design work for a Kentucky plant to liquefy coal, while $16 million was added to look into ways of extracting oil from western oil shales while the rock remains in the ground.
Another $29 million was restored to continue research into magnetohydrodynamics, a process that may allow coal to be burned more cleanly and efficiently. Reagan's budget had eliminated the Carter administration's $67 million in funding, arguing that the process was not much more efficient than existing technologies.
But in almost every case, Congress only restored part of what had been cut. Of magnetohydrodynamics, for example, one Senate Energy Committee staffer said, "we added only a small amount, enough to keep the program alive." An attorney for House Energy and Commerce Committee added, "These additions really aren't significant in the overall picture."