THE BLOG
03/14/2011 06:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Key Energy Innovation Agency Draws Bipartisan Praise

As both Republicans and Democrats in Congress appear willing to cut funding for key energy innovation programs, a bipartisan group of senators have spoken out in support of maintaining funding for an innovative energy technology agency that invests in game-changing research.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), have all rallied around the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), hoping to shield it from major budget cuts in the following months.

Speaking at ARPA-E's recent Washington, D.C., summit, Senator Alexander, one of most respected Republican Senators on energy issues, discussed the importance of maintaining investments in energy research:

Obviously we're going to have to work to reduce spending, but we have to be smart, not cheap. We need to make certain we leave room for the basic research that drives our high standard of living. Most of the focus is on reducing spending, but sooner or later we're going to have to set priorities. One of my priorities is research and development... It is my belief that ARPA-E is one of the bright stars in innovation in the world today, and certainly for our country.

Alexander advocates ending energy subsidies for mature energy technologies -- including both oil and some older renewable energy technologies -- in order to free up funding for expanded investments in energy research and advanced technologies -- a concept broadly consistent with the advanced energy strategy that the Breakthrough Institute and our colleagues at Brookings and AEI called for in Post-Partisan Power.

Republican Lisa Murkowksi, ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also spoke approvingly of ARPA-E in a speech at the D.C. summit:

It's widely acknowledged that we will need genuine breakthroughs, not just incremental advances, to transform our energy supply. We need to think outside the box. America is a global leader because of our ability to innovate - not simply taking someone else's idea and improving it - but coming up with the new ideas in the first place. To me, it makes sense to give some of America's best and brightest scientists an opportunity and an incentive to do just that.

And Bingaman, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, tied ARPA-E's funding to the United States' economic future:

If the United States is to have a brighter economic future, we must be the world's innovation leader. That means we must begin to invest today. I see ARPA-E as having an exceptional opportunity to ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of this crucial sector.

Given the obsession of most Congressional Republicans to cut spending at all costs, it's significant and encouraging to see two influential Senate Republicans speaking out for innovation. But given the strong headwinds against new investments, securing the necessary level of investment for an organization like ARPA-E will be a challenge.

President Obama's budget request of $550 million for ARPA-E -- below what experts have suggested would be an appropriate scale -- appears unlikely to be approved. Senate Democrats have already scaled that down to $200 million in their opening negotiating positions over funding the government while House Republicans would fund the agency at just $50 million.

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