Congress crafts new research agency for Energy

Lawmakers are acting quickly to craft a new agency modeled after the arm of the Defense Department that created the Internet.

Members of the House Science Committee held a hearing last week to discuss whether the creation of a new research agency within the Energy Department – Advanced Research Projects Agency ARPA-E – could advance U.S. competitiveness in the energy arena. ARPA-E would resemble the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which focused on computer science research and development.

Several pieces of legislation and an influential report on the country’s declining competitiveness are promoting ARPA-E to wean the country off dependence on foreign oil.

Last October’s National Academy of Sciences report, "Rising above the Gathering Storm,” calls for an ARPA-E patterned after DARPA that would support “generic energy research," which industry cannot or will not support on its own. Funding for ARPA-E should start at $300 million the first year and increase to $1 billion per year over 5-6 years, the report recommends.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, spoke in favor of the idea at the hearing. "The question is, how far are we willing to go to enact real change that garners tangible results?” he said. “Establishing an ARPA-E is a bold step, but it just may be the tool that gets the job done."

Gordon introduced legislation last December aimed at enacting many of the NAS report recommendations, including establishment of an ARPA-E.

"Decades of energy research will only pay off if truly innovative technologies make their way from conception to reality, and an APRA-E is one way to insure that happens," he said last week.

Under Gordon's bill, the director of ARPA-E would report to the energy secretary.

Several lawmakers at the hearing raised concerns that ARPA-E would take money away from the Energy Department's Office of Science. They also raised the point that the Homeland Security Department recently attempted a DARPA-like model that most observers believe has not been largely successful.

After the hearing, it was unclear how the ARPA-E initiative would be funded or what its structure would be. The House Science Committee is considering drafting a bill to implement an ARPA-E that would address these concerns, as part of a larger competitiveness legislation package.

A Senate version of the ARPA-E bill (S. 2197) garnered strong bipartisan support when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee marked it up last week.

Separately, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, introduced similar ARPA-E legislation.

However, Baucus’ Energy Competitiveness Act of 2006 creates ARPA-E as an independent agency outside the Department of Energy, with a director appointed by and answerable to the President.

“We are trapped in an energy box characterized by high imports, increasing prices, and looming environmental and political instability. To break out, we need an energy research effort modeled after the Manhattan Project, or the Apollo mission to the moon. ARPA-E can be an equally successful effort, if we build it right from the start,” Baucus said.

The legislation would fund ARPA-E at $300 million for fiscal 2007 and would increase funding to $2 billion by fiscal 2011.

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