with Paulina Firozi


Energy Secretary Rick Perry last week called out a little-known energy technology incubator as one of the reasons the department “has had and is having such a profound impact on American lives.” 

At the annual summit for the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy last Wednesday, Perry said the technology born in the nursery for energy startups is "impressive" and "simply a preview of our possibilities."
Based on that review of ARPA-E, who would think the Trump administration is trying to shut it down? 

For two years in a row, the Trump administration has proposed eliminating ARPA-E, an agency tasked with promoting and funding breakthroughs in energy technology. (Its famous cousin DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funds research for new weapons for the Pentagon.) 

In its latest budget request to Congress, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget said the private sector — not the government — should play the “primary role” in funding research into new ways of generating electricity and powering vehicles.

Yet both publicly and privately last week, political leaders at the Energy Department indicated they stand behind the program.

Congressional Democrats, along with several powerful Republicans, are keen to keep the agency funded. And Perry, himself a former appropriator when he served in the Texas House of Representatives, appears more receptive to lobbying from Democrats than some of the more adamant members of Trump’s Cabinet. The back-and-forth between him and lawmakers is a throwback to how budgets in Washington used to be written. 

And ARPA-E has proven to be resilient in the face of the broad budget cuts sought by the OMB and its director, Mick Mulvaney, a small-government advocate who rode the tea-party wave into Congress in 2010. The agency was born out a bipartisan agreement in 2007 and funded as part of the economic stimulus in 2009. 

“Despite the administration’s budget,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) told APRA-E summit attendees Wednesday, “we’ve been assured from the Department of Energy that the secretary fully supports this program.” Before the speech, a political appointee at the department briefed Bennet’s staff on Perry's views on ARPA-E, the senator's office said. 

Perry was scheduled to deliver the remarks in person at the summit before he was called away to testify Wednesday before a Senate panel on President Trump’s infrastructure plan.

Delivering his remarks remotely, Perry said: “I deeply regret I couldn’t join you in person … However, while you’re here I hope you will enjoy the many high-potential, high-impact technologies ARPA-E has moved out of the lab and towards deployment.”

One day later, Perry was on Capitol Hill to defend the president’s proposed budget in front of a House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water issues. Yet Perry reassured Democratic lawmakers he still values the work of some offices for which the Trump administration proposed to cut funding.

"This subcommittee is extremely interested in any proposed changes to ARPA-E,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, the top Democrat on the energy appropriations subcommittee. “That’s kind of like the gold star. It’s where we invent the future.” Kaptur has privately lobbied DOE officials about ARPA-E, her office said, in addition to penning an editorial in the largest newspaper in her district, the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

“Ms. Kaptur,” Perry responded, “you have my commitment that I’m going to work with this committee… We’re going to honor and follow instructions.”

Perry added, “If it’s the will of this committee for ARPA-E to exist going forward in some form or fashion, I hope that you will have confidence that not only have I done this before as a governor, but that we’ll have good successes and that we can stand up together and say, this is how it’s supposed to work. This is a good return on investment for the American taxpayers’ dollars.”

Renewable-energy advocates took Perry’s words as a sign of encouragement.

Greg Wetstone, head of the lobbying group American Council on Renewable Energy, said Perry is “not obviously disowning the administration's budget proposal but he's certainly showing a willingness to go along with what clearly is going to be Congress's intent.”

Wetstone continued, “There is an underlying theme here: Don't take the administration's budget request very seriously.”

The prospect that ARPA-E could survive the budget knives were grimmer a year ago. 

Last May, Trump unveiled his budget proposal that called for killing ARPA-E. Funding was put on pause and, a month later, the House energy appropriations panel voted to advance a bill formally eliminating the agency.

Quickly, though, firms and land-grant universities receiving ARPA-E grants, many in red states, made noise about losing a source of funding. By July, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the subcommittee, made a point of publicly supporting the program.

“I think ARPA-E is a good program myself, as I’ve said earlier, and I’ll say it again so that maybe it’s heard all the way down at the Forrestal Building,” Simpson said at a subcommittee hearing, referring to DOE’s headquarters.

That summer, ARPA-E was back to announcing new funding opportunities. In December, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, determined the Trump administration violated the law by withholding ARPA-E funds earlier that year.

Created by a law signed by President Bush in 2007 and first funded by President Obama two years later, ARPA-E is a freestanding office within DOE designed to operate nimbly to fund breakthrough energy innovations.

Last year, a congressionally mandated National Academies of Sciences assessment concluded ARPA-E is a success story so far, one that is “making progress toward achieving its statutory mission and goals.”

Among the achievements so far according to the report: 581 scientific journal studies published, 74 patents granted and, perhaps most importantly for a businessman like Trump, 36 new companies founded, all based on ARPA-E funded research.


— Pruitt’s political pursuits: People close to Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt say he is using the role to position himself for a different one. He's potentially eyeing a race for senator or governor in his home state of Oklahoma or -- should Trump wish to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- the top job at the Justice Department, the New York Times reported in a front-page story over the weekend. One of several telltale details in the report: Pruitt "keeps his watch set to the time in Oklahoma even when he is working on the East Coast."

— Despite his ambitions, it won't be easy to replace Sessions with Pruitt: "This move could be challenged in the courts, setting off a barrage of litigation," Politico writes in a good explainer. "Pruitt might find himself too conflicted to touch the Mueller investigation, just as Sessions was. And the firing could well worsen the president’s exposure to obstruction of justice proceedings."

— Meanwhile: Last year, Pruitt met with an Indiana coal executive and Trump political donor who was looking to have a pollution regulation weakened, according to records obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request and reported by Politico. Pruitt met with Steven Chancellor, chief executive of White Stallion Energy, last May for a “courtesy call and introductory meeting.” Chancellor has said he raised "north of a million" for Trump’s presidential campaign. In December 2016, he petitioned the EPA to weaken a rule on pollution that travels across state lines.

— Pruitt’s plans against science: The EPA head is expected to try to restrict the extent to the agency uses science to write rules, similar to a plan conservative lawmakers and groups have been pushing for years, E&E News reports. Pruitt told a gathering of conservatives at the Heritage Foundation about the plans last week, and Steve Milloy, a member of the EPA transition team who was at the meeting, told the news organization the plan could be put in place “sooner rather than later.”

— White hat rides into town: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, stopping in southern Arizona on Saturday, where he said  “clearly, we’re going to build a wall.” He said his trip would help him understand how to alleviate environmental concerns associated with the wall the Trump administration wants to build along the southern border. “Clearly, the design is not yet finished,” Zinke added, the Arizona Republic reported.

— “How could ever saying ‘good morning’ be bad?” Zinke said Saturday, defending his use of the phrase “konnichiwa” to greet a congresswoman of Japanese descent during a hearing last week. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) asked Zinke about funding for a program that preserves the history of internment camps, explaining that her grandfathers were kept in such camps. Zinke responded: “Oh, konnichiwa,” a greeting for good morning.

— "Act fast:" The new Wildlife Conservation Council, which the Associated Press reported last week was filled with pro-hunting members with ties to the Trump family, met for the first time on Friday. “Members agreed that hunting is necessary for conserving endangered species and impoverished communities in Africa; that illegal hunting — largely done by organized crime communities — should not to be mistaken with legal paid hunting; and that the council needed to act fast,” The Hill reported.

— A whale of a lawsuit: Native American and conservation groups filed a lawsuit late last week against the Trump administration for failing to protect humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean. The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation charged in the suit that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to create a habitat for humpback whales after their designation under the Endangered Species Act was reestablished in 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.


— There are plenty of advantages to self-driving cars, but it isn't a perfect picture: According to new research, some elements of self-driving vehicles will have a negative environmental impact. The added weight, electricity demand and aerodynamic drag from sensors will have a significant contribution to “lifetime energy use and greenhouse gas emissions relating to autonomous vehicles,” Digital Journal reports. “Our findings highlight the need to focus on energy efficiency when designing autonomous vehicles so that the full environmental benefits of this emerging, transformative technology can be realized,” said the study's lead researcher, Gregory Keoleian of the University of Michigan.


— Inspection issues with offshore drilling equipment: Inspectors found “serious problems” following inspections of about 40 offshore platforms and rigs, the New York Times reports. The inspections followed a push from Zinke after the department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement “issued an alert to offshore oil and gas operators in the Gulf. It warned about a series of ‘potentially catastrophic crane and lifting incidents’ that occurred late last year on platforms and drilling rigs,” per the New York Times.


Coming Up

  • Perry will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the department’s proposed budget on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a legislative hearing on various bills on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs holds an oversight hearing on “Policy Priorities for the Administration’s FY 2019 Budget for Indian Affairs and Insular Areas” on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety will hold a hearing on “the Nomination of John L. Ryder of Tennessee to be a Member of the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority” on Tuesday.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration on Tuesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on the 2018 Nuclear Regulatory Commission budget on Tuesday.
  • The House Transportation Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management holds a hearing on the impact of the 2017 wildfires on the United States on Tuesday.
  • The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association’s Coastal Summit 2018 begins on Tuesday.
  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on the future of solar energy on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works holds a hearing on oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday.
  • The American Coalition for Ethanol holds the 10th annual DC Fly-In & Government Affairs Summit starting on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a hearing on Wednesday.  
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup on various bills on Wednesday.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the 2019 budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday.
  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security holds a hearing on bureaucratic challenges to hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the 2018 Western Water Supply Outlook and Bills Related to Water Infrastructure and Drought Resiliency on Thursday.
  • The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on the future of infrastructure policy under Trump on Thursday.
  • USTR Robert Lighthizer will testify before the Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing on the president’s 2018 trade policy agenda on Thursday.                                                                           
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies holds a hearing on applied energy on Thursday.
  • The Wilson Center holds an event on “Linking China’s Domestic and Global Energy Ambitions” on Thursday.
  • Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas holds its annual POWER Conference on Energy Research and Policy on Friday.
A bald eaglet hatched early on March 17, in a nest above the Metropolitan Police Department Training Academy in Washington, D.C. (Reuters)

— Bird's eye view: Last week, a bald eaglet hatched early in a nest above the D.C. police academy in Southwest Washington.