Energy Grant Freeze Worries Senators, Including Murkowski

’We are deeply troubled by reports that the Department of Energy has delayed awarding funds’

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks with reporters before the Senate Policy Luncheons in the Capitol on May 9, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators are seeking assurances that a Trump administration freeze on certain grants by the Department of Energy does not become permanent.

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Wednesday that she sought “assurances” from DOE about the future of DOE research funding — currently on hold for a department-wide review — and indicated she endorsed inquiries to ensure those assurances are met.

Energy Department officials “did kind of give assurance that they were going to be doing this case-by-case review, and I do want to know that that is in fact in process,” Murkowski told reporters. “I did not know that [Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.] had sent something out, but knowing where we are in the process is not a bad thing.”

Murkowski’s comments followed a letter sent Tuesday by 28 Senate Democrats, who suggested that the Department of Energy may be skirting appropriations law by withholding the research funding.

In the letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the lawmakers, led by Cantwell, the top Democrat on Murkowski’s panel, called on the department to end its grant freeze and follow congressional intent on research funding. 

“We are deeply troubled by reports that the Department of Energy (DOE) has delayed awarding funds and, in some cases, is refusing to release funds altogether for various activities for which Congress has already provided appropriations,” the letter said. “These actions not only ignore Congressional intent, but are explicitly prohibited by law.”

DOE instituted a wide-reaching grant freeze earlier this month as it reviews previously awarded research funding and how it applies to the priorities of the Trump administration. 

A DOE spokesman was not immediately available for comment on the letter.

The Democratic lawmakers say that reports from labs and universities across the country indicate the money pause could be drastically harmful to research. 

“It appears that the Department may already be ignoring Congressional direction,” the letter said. “We have heard from small businesses, universities, and research institutions, as well as media reports that the DOE has slowed down or frozen some of its essential research and development programs that promote American innovation, economic competitiveness, and cutting-edge science.”

In its “skinny budget” released in March, the Trump administration proposed slashing the department’s research dollars by almost $2 billion. Congress largely rejected the administration’s priorities in its omnibus spending law for the remainder of fiscal 2017, appropriating even more research dollars for DOE than in the previous fiscal year.

Among the grant-issuing programs the lawmakers say they have heard concerns about are the Weatherization Assistance program, the State Energy Grant program, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, the Loan Program Office, the Office of Science and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Each of those programs is likely to be targeted for cuts in the Trump budget for fiscal 2018, set for release next week. Some, like ARPA-E and the Weatherization program, would be eliminated entirely if the “skinny budget” offered by the White House on March 16 is any indication.

Murkowski, who also serves on the Appropriations Committee,  cautioned that many of those programs have broad support, including from her.

“I take perhaps a more comprehensive view of some the things, and say we can work to address some of the concerns you might have about these programs,” she said. “But eliminating them in [their] entirety, in my view, is not the way we ought to go.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.