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Storm Brewing Over ARPA-E?

Smooth Sailing not a Sure Thing For ARPA-EPresident Obama announced new federal funding goals for science, particularly the transformational energy research program ARPA-E, just as a a global swine flu pandemic was getting underway, so it’s little wonder that the news sank with barely a ripple.  Among those who did take notice, the Sierra Club stated that “we have finally closed the books on the Bush era of climate denial.”  But a closer look at ARPA-E suggests that it’s way too soon to pop the corks.

A Brief History of ARPA-E

ARPA-E is the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.  Modeled on the successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it was proposed in Congress in December 2005 as House Resolution 4435, and in January 2007 as H.R. 364.  Here’s the money quote from Section 2 of the bill:

The stated goal of ARPA-E is to enhance the Nation’s economic and energy security through research and development of technologies that reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources, improve energy efficiency of the U.S. economy, reduce the impact of the energy sector on the environment, and ensure the U.S. leadership in developing energy technologies.

That being 2007, you can guess what happened next.  ARPA-E made it into the America COMPETES Act, which President Bush signed into law in August 2007.  And then…nothing.  Money was authorized for ARPA-E but never appropriated.

ARPA-E: The Obama Difference?

With President Obama firmly behind it, funds are due to come through for ARPA-E.  But take a look at some of the organizations that officially supported H.R. 364 and you’ll begin to wonder how long that’s going to last, or what direction it’s going to take.  According the the House Committee on Science and Technology, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers both put their weight behind H.R. 364.  Say what?

With Friends Like These, ARPA-E Doesn’t Need Enemies

API has a long history of involvement in the global warming denial scene.  Writer Sharon Begley has described its activities here and here.  Almost directly in opposition to ARPA-E’s stated goals, API recently sent a letter to congress stating that “the US oil and natural gas industry has the expertise and technology to produce the energy we need to fuel economic growth, create jobs, generate significant revenues for local, state and federal governments, and bolster our national security.”  As for NAM, apparently they’ll be participating in mock climate change hearings cooked up by some members of Congress, while the grownups are busy working on a climate change bill.

In other words, damn the transformational energy, full speed ahead.

More ARPA-E Pushback Looming

API and NAM are just the tip of a climate change lobbying iceberg which, unlike polar ice, has been growing at a rapid pace, targeting climate-friendly legislators for re-election challenges, and shaping public opinion.  How effective are these campaigns?  Yes, we all had a good laugh about last year’s silly little clean coal cartoon, but we’re talking about organizations that have convinced large chunks of the American public that smoking won’t kill you, that  decorated war veterans are un-American, and that we’re not facing a potentially catastrophic change in the earth’s climate due to the unsustainable use of fossil fuels.

The bottom line?  Don’t take that ARPA-E funding for granted, and fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night.

Image: deeje on flickr.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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