Lamborn’s effort to cut NREL funding gets opposition from his own Republican Party

The Colorado Statesman

Fifth District Congressman Doug Lamborn’s effort to defund the Jefferson County-based National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) is getting some pushback from his fellow Republicans in Colorado.

Lamborn’s desire to defund NREL is in sharp contrast to enthusiastic support he expressed for the facility less than three years ago, and in statements this week the third-term congressman appears to be backing off the formal request to strip its funding, telling The Colorado Statesman that he wants the lab to stay open.

Three Jeffco Republicans from the Colorado House of Representatives sent Lamborn a letter Wednesday that asked him to re-think his position on cutting funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which funds the Golden facility.

Doug Lamborn, R-CD 5

In a June 1 letter to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., along with eight other House Republican signatories, said the EERE programs are “anti-energy” and have been sold to the public “as focusing on advanced research and development initiatives that would transform our energy infrastructure, eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, and reduce energy prices.  We have been told that these technologies are extremely promising and will reap many times the cost of the research that the taxpayers are now forced to subsidize.” However, instead the programs “have failed to live up to their supposed potential” and “placed U.S. taxpayers in the role of venture capitalists and industry R&D departments, focusing more and more on commercialization projects and ideologically pleasing forays, all while producing scant if any real return for these ever-increasing obligations. If this research is truly revolutionary, investors should be eager to invest in this technology; if it is so promising, there should be no end of private capital competing to enlist researchers and secure a piece of this new energy cornucopia.”

On June 1, the appropriations subcommittee released its fiscal year 2012 energy and water appropriations bill. That bill proposed $1.3 billion for programs that would lower the cost of renewable energy technologies and to develop new technology, but at $491 million below the 2011 funding level. In a statement that accompanied the bill’s release, subcommittee chair Rep. Rodney Freinghuysen, R-NJ, said that the recommendation “cuts back on programs with large unspent balances, ensuring that every hard-earned taxpayer dollar will be well spent. This bill improves oversight of the agencies under the jurisdiction and rightly so to protect taxpayer money.”

“We respectfully request that the Committee include no funding for these programs for FY2012,” the letter concluded.

Funding for the Department of Energy as recommended by the subcommittee is $24.7 billion for 2012, which is $850 million below 2011 funding levels and $5.9 billion below what was sought by President Barack Obama.

NREL, in the district of Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD 7, employs 2,300 individuals and provides a $714 million boost to the state economy, according to a 2011 report from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado. The ripple effect also extends to job creation; in total the facility’s efforts translate into 5,500 jobs in Colorado.

Lamborn was one of the eight signatories to the McClintock letter. Through a spokesperson Wednesday, Lamborn said his goal with NREL “is to keep the lab open and return its focus back to basic research and development and leave the commercialization business to the private sector.

“Renewable energy can play an important role in our country’s energy future,” Lamborn said, in his statement Wednesday “but in these tight budgetary times taxpayers should not be subsidizing work that should be done with private investment dollars. I believe the free markets are better suited to make business decisions than the federal government. 

“Instead, the federal government should focus on removing obstacles for renewable energy projects on federal lands and reducing the burdensome environmental restrictions that prevent market-viable renewable energy projects, and conventional energy projects for that matter, from going forward.” 

Lamborn also pointed out that he had recently chaired a committee oversight hearing on solar energy, which in part looked at the commercial work being done at NREL. He cited a purchase by DOE of 98 fuel cell forklifts for Sysco Food Services, at a cost of $1.2 million; an offer by the lab to private companies to help them reduce their energy costs and carbon footprint “while improving competitiveness;” and the Solar Energy Program goal to “accelerate widespread commercialization of clean solar energy technologies which will lower greenhouse gas emissions, provide a clean and secure domestic source of energy, and create high-paying green jobs.”

Colorado state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, said he is working on an effort to educate Lamborn on the work done by NREL. He noted that the facility has generated more than 2,000 patents that have been passed on to the private sector in Colorado and elsewhere.

Kerr told The Statesman this week that he will ask Lamborn to take a tour of NREL and learn about the facility. NREL “is a pretty good thing,” Kerr said Wednesday, citing its job creation and its projects with CU, the Colorado School of Mines and Colorado State University. “I hate spending taxpayer money, but it’s taxpayer money that is well-spent,” Kerr said.

This is a facility that is making breakthroughs on 21st century technology, he explained, and if Lamborn saw this for himself “he’d have a different opinion.” Kerr said he had tried to call Lamborn but was unable to reach him.

Kerr said their approach is to try to educate Lamborn and to get him “on board” for the facility. “We don’t want to step on [Lamborn’s] toes,” Kerr said. “This is a valuable resource to us and to the United States, because of the technology they’re developing” and which is creating private sector jobs and a vision for 21st century energy.

Kerr is enlisting the support of two of his fellow Jefferson County Republican colleagues, Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Littleton. Gerou and Summers both told The Statesman that while they haven’t seen his letter they support the approach of educating the congressman about the facility.

Gerou noted that many NREL and Mines employees live in her district, which she characterized as “more environmentally sensitive” than others. “It’s about the jobs for me,” she said, as well as how NREL interacts with private business and with Mines. “You have to look at the whole picture,” and understand that while people are trying to reduce spending there’s a lot of positive output from NREL. She said she wasn’t pleased by Lamborn’s comments but if the congressman can learn something new about Colorado and how government works “that’s a good thing. This isn’t in his district, so it would make sense that he’s not aware of what goes on.”

“Budget and expenditures at the federal level can be reviewed,” Summers said Wednesday, “but a flat defunding seems like a radical move.”

In 2008, Lamborn supported NREL. He toured the facility with ten other GOP representatives, and in a July 2008 press release announcing the tour said that in order “to bring down the price of gas we need to tap all available domestic sources. While Democrats continue to stall on providing and implementing an actual plan to bring down gas prices, it is imperative to march forward and explore new strategies for a meaningful solution. As we look forward to the future of energy in our great nation, we must keep domestic production at the forefront of all plans and actions,” and “fully explore alternative energy sources.” Lamborn also said in that statement that while he was enthusiastic about the tour, “it is crucial that we simultaneously press forward with plans for off-shore drilling.” 

Lamborn listed promotion of alternative fuels as one of his energy priorities that year.

Noting the 2008 tour, Perlmutter said Thursday that back then, “Doug was very enthusiastic about touring NREL and stated conservation, efficiency and alternative fuel sources were among his top energy priorities. Recently, much to my surprise I read a letter co-signed by Doug advocating we cease funding to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program that allows labs like NREL to tackle these important priorities. I’d like to invite him back to NREL to take another tour with me so he can see again the great work they are doing. Energy independence and job creation have always been my priority.  I hope Doug will accept my offer to show him all of the developments taking place at the finest renewable energy lab in the world that is responsible for 5,500 private and public sector jobs and a $700 million economic impact for Colorado,” Perlmutter said.