APPROPRIATIONS:

Dorgan anticipates easy conference on energy and water bill

Merging the House and Senate fiscal 2010 spending bills for the Energy Department and federal water projects should be relatively easy, an appropriations cardinal said after the Senate passed its bill last night.

The Senate approved, 85-9, the $34.3 billion energy and water spending bill that funds the Energy Department, the Army Corps of Engineers' water projects, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation and several independent agencies.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, told E&E that he envisioned a smooth negotiation with the other chamber.

"I suspect that merging the two bills will provide some interesting moments, but we have generally had a good relationship with the House committee, and we have already begun some discussions about how we would begin to work on it," he said.

"I don't anticipate that this process is going to be full of controversy. I think we will be able to do this in fairly short order. We have somewhat different numbers on water issues and certain areas of energy, but I think we will get this done," Dorgan added.

The Senate bill provides almost $27.4 billion for DOE, $5.4 billion for the corps and almost $1.2 billion for Interior water programs. House and Senate lawmakers must now work out several funding differences between the spending bills. The House passed its bill, H.R. 3183, earlier this month.

The Senate and House bills diverge in funding for new Army Corps projects. The Senate version includes no new project starts or investigations next year, breaking with President Obama's request for five new construction programs and seven new investigations or maintenance projects. The House bill includes the Obama-requested measures.

The Senate bill also funnels $89 million more to corps flood reduction projects in the Mississippi River Valley, and $93 million more to the Bureau of Reclamation.

On the energy front, the House plan provides nearly $618 million for DOE fossil energy programs, matching the White House request, while the Senate measure provides $699 million. Elsewhere, the House provides $812 million for nuclear energy programs, while the Senate provides $761 million, matching the White House request.

Both bills go along with Obama administration plans not to build the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and sharply cut funding to roughly $197 million. The money is mostly to continue a Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process that DOE has now cast as an educational exercise, and not an effort to proceed with the project.

The decision to abandon the Yucca Project is a victory for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "I'll continue my work with the administration and our congressional delegation to prevent Nevada from ever again being considered as the nation's nuclear dumping ground," he said in a statement last night.

Reid's office also said he had cut NRC's Yucca license application funding to $29 million, compared to $56 million in the White House budget request. A Reid aide said last night that this was among the various amendments cleared as a group before the bill's passage.

Elsewhere, the House and Senate bills buck a DOE effort to end funding for hydrogen-powered vehicles research, with the Senate bill providing $190 million for hydrogen programs overall.

Energy amendments

The Senate approved a host of amendments yesterday to the measure en route to passage.

That includes Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) plan to steer $15 million into district energy and combined heat and power systems.

The amendment, adopted by voice vote, authorizes technical assistance grants from DOE's industrial technologies program to a range of parties, such as utilities, universities and local governments.

District energy systems provide heating and cooling to multiple buildings from a central plant through underground pipes, while combined heat and power systems provide both thermal energy and electric power from a single source, using heat that would otherwise be wasted.

The grants would be for uses such as engineering and feasibility studies, design work, and for analysis to overcome financial, permitting and other barriers, according to Sanders' office, and would have to be matched at various levels depending on the use of the grant.

Sanders said the technologies provide a "huge opportunity" to curb greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs and providing reliable heating, cooling and power. He cited the usefulness of capturing what is now lost as waste heat at power plants and using it to heat and cool nearby buildings.

The Senate approved by voice vote a wind energy amendment by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that she said would fill a gap in current research and development programs. It steers $8 million of the bill's wind energy R&D funding specifically to be competitively awarded for purchase of wind turbine equipment to study problems with premature failures and performance problems, Hutchinson said on the floor.

The chamber also approved, 79-18, a Dorgan amendment that seeks to prevents funds from being used for DOE contracts unless they are competitively bid, but it does not apply in all cases.

Dorgan's amendment came in response to Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) contracting amendment that would have required competitive bidding for all grants and contracts under the bill. It failed on a 26-71 vote.

Dorgan told E&E that Coburn's plan was too sweeping and would have caused serious problems, noting that competitive bidding is not appropriate in all cases, such as DOE agreements for cutting-edge research.

"That doesn't lend itself to that kind of contract bidding," Dorgan said, while adding his amendment. "Simply said, we want things competitively bid where it is appropriate to do so."

Lawmakers turned back several other amendments, including Coburn's plan that would have reduced DOE funding by $13.8 million, citing inspector general reports that found wasted energy by the department. The vote was 35-62. Coburn said the agency that plays the lead federal role in promoting energy efficiency is failing to address the issue adequately itself.

"This is a common sense amendment that we need to lead by example," spokesman Don Tatro said.

Also rejected was Sen. Lamar Alexander's (R-Tenn.) amendment that would have provided the government's ownership stakes in General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC to taxpayers as stock, and also barred further use of money from last year's Wall Street bailout to aid the automakers. The amendment failed when a point of order against it was sustained on a 38-59 vote.

Water amendments

The Senate cleared an amendment by California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein that authorizes voluntary water transfers among contractors in the state's drought-ridden Central Valley agricultural community.

The provision makes it easier to transfer water between counties and specifically authorizes water transfers between the Friant Division on the east side of the Central Valley and south-of-delta agricultural water service contractors on the west side of the valley.

Lawmakers also agreed by voice vote to an amendment from Delaware Democratic Sens. Ted Kaufman and Tom Carper that blocks the Army Corps from funding the Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project until the state issues a permit for it. The bill allots $10 million for the controversial plan to deepen the Delaware River ship channel from 40 to 45 feet.

Delaware officials last week denied the corps' permit application for the project, and New Jersey is also opposed to the 12-year-old plan, which critics say will wreak excessive environmental damage for minimal economic benefit.

A provision from Reid and fellow Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R) that allocates $66.2 million to establish the Walker Basin Restoration Program cleared the Senate by voice vote. The program will target the restoration and maintenance of Walker Lake, a natural desert terminal lake in Nevada, according to the amendment text.

The measure also sets aside an additional $7.5 million for other water projects in the state.

The Senate also accepted an amendment by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that increases funding for the Ten Mile Creek Water Preserve Area, part of the Everglades Restoration Project in Florida.

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