ENERGY POLICY:

DOE says stimulus program past its growing pains

Bureaucratic issues that have limited the distribution of economic stimulus funds to support energy efficiency programs have largely been resolved, the Energy Department said yesterday, but key senators remain unconvinced.

DOE and the Labor Department have resolved most fair labor wage requirements, environmental reviews and other federal requirements, and are sending "SWAT" teams to help local and state organizations hurdle and navigate federal and state application processes, Matt Rogers, head of DOE's stimulus program, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Several reports released last month by the Government Accountability Office and DOE's inspector general indicated that, at most, 8 percent of $5 billion in weatherization assistance funding had been spent as of February (E&ENews PM, Feb. 23).

Rogers said DOE had aggressively worked to clear up the federal and local barriers to fund disbursement, and DOE is now on pace to finish 30,000 houses per month by the end of March and finish 250,000 house efficiency upgrades this year. DOE's ultimate goal is to weatherize 600,000 homes by March 2012.

Rogers noted that tax difficulties with another stimulus program -- $3.7 billion in "smart grid" grants that were awarded in October -- would be clarified in about two weeks when he expects the Internal Revenue Service to publish guidance. He said he does not expect any of the smart grid awardees to reject the awards.

Michele Nellenbach, director of the Natural Resources Committee of the National Governors Association, said the governors agreed with DOE's assessment of the weatherization stimulus funds.

"The big issues are largely behind us," Nellenbach said. "We are already seeing a lot of success."

But Nellenbach warned that there could be further delays if DOE decides to change a quarterly reporting requirement on expenditures to a monthly one.

Due to hiring and budget freezes, the states "need every possible man-hour committed to getting that money out the door," Nellenbach said. "Instead [the new reporting requirement] will send more man-hours for sending reports to DOE."

Rogers said the additional reporting requirements would allow DOE to identify grant recipients in need of support so the department could prioritize its assistance, especially as DOE has identified the weatherization program as one of 12 "high risk" areas for poor management.

But Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) did not sound convinced. "I guess we will have to feel our way along and see if the requirement can be managed by the states and get everything else done," he said.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) had a different problem with the DOE program, namely he could not get the number of grant applicants that came from New Jersey. Rogers said the information was blocked by Internal Revenue Service rules and a wish to protect a company's value in case its application was rejected.

"What is wrong? This is transparency?" Menendez said. "It's ridiculous, ridiculous. ... As one senator who has been supportive you are not going to get my support if I can't get information. I can't make intelligent budget decisions on your requests without information."

Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said lessons needed to be learned from this process and hoped Congress would not just spend money in a "knee jerk" response.

"Right now there is a lot of pressure on us, 'create jobs make things happen now, send money to make something happen,'" Murkowski said.

"I am hopeful that there is more of a vision plan. I mean, how do we continue the good things that came from this rather than as we work to put together yet another jobs bill, 'well let's put in another energy piece' that maybe DOE is not ready to or not that the best-suited to be advancing. And I think we need to be working in a far more coordinated manner," Murkowski said.

"I think we recognize that when we are talking about our taxpayer dollars going out to create jobs that not all jobs are created equal," Murkowski added. "We want to make sure that as we talk about how we create the jobs that we aren't making our country less competitive by helping to build out the infrastructures and all that is happening overseas."

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