The Bumpy Pathway to an Energy Breakthrough

Everyone agrees we need a technological advance, but how to spend limited funds is contentious.

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Rep. Roscoe Bartlett is one of the founders and, one might say, the lion of Congress's peak oil caucus, a group of lawmakers concerned about the world's oil supply running out. With leonine intensity, the Maryland Republican took on the Bush administration on its funding priorities for energy research and development.

"Why are we interested in hydrogen?" Bartlett pounced, at a contentious budget hearing by the House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on energy and environment.

"Hydrogen, like fusion, represents the holy grail out there," responded Steve Isakowitz, chief financial officer of the Department of Energy. It could hold the keys to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, he said.

"How is it going to do that, since hydrogen is not an energy source?" Bartlett shot back. "We will always use more energy to make hydrogen than we get out of it."

Isakowitz said it mattered how you produced hydrogen, which is why the administration believed in the development of nuclear power to produce hydrogen.

This solution didn't satisfy Bartlett.

"Hydrogen is not an energy source," he said. "It is not a silver bullet. It will not solve our problem. There's a lot of irrational exuberance in this area."

We all agree that we need technological breakthroughs on energy, but we disagree deeply on how to spend limited money to get there.

The acrimony is so great that two Department of Energy under secretaries were no-shows at the subcommittee's session, which should have been a routine budget hearing. C. H. "Bud" Albright, under secretary for energy, and Ray Orbach, under secretary for science, sent word they wouldn't appear because of protocol.

They didn't want to sit on the same panel as a representative of the Government Accountability Office, which has been asked by Congress to investigate the department's slashing of the FutureGen clean coal demonstration project in Matoon, Ill. Rep. Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democrat, called the under secretaries' decision not to appear "highly offensive." He added: "I personally believe there are other motives why they are not here, including to avoid questions on some of the items in this budget," including the decision to eliminate FutureGen.

As it was, Isakowitz absorbed the flak for the department's decision to withdraw after costs had doubled to $1.8 billion, 70 percent of which would have been paid by taxpayers. "We remain committed to the goals of FutureGen," he said. "That having been said, the department is often faced with the situation that although it's committed to a goal, it must also watch out for the taxpayer."