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Budget Cuts
Axing ARPA-E Is a Mistake

The White House released an outline of its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, and it’s perhaps best described as a bloodbath for federal green programs. The Environmental Protection Agency alone is seeing a 31 percent reduction in its budget, down from $8.2 billion in 2017 to $5.7 in 2018, with climate-related projects being the primary focus of the scythe.

This doesn’t come as a shock, and it exposes just how impermanent Obama’s environmental policies were. By circumventing Congress to enact his Clean Power Plan and most of his other green initiatives, the former president left behind a rickety green legacy, and with this proposed budget, Trump is showing just how easy it will be to dismantle those “victories.”

But there are some important programs in here that shouldn’t be treated as political footballs. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is a relatively small agency devoted to researching energy moonshots—the sorts of technological solutions we’re going to need to solve the pressing problems of sustainably developing over the coming decades. Trump’s budget proposes eliminating ARPA-E, as Quartz reports:

By eliminating ARPA-E and making deep cuts to the Department of Energy’s science funding, the president’s “skinny” budget would cripple our ability to discover and develop new energy technologies, while forfeiting leadership in the energy economy to China, Germany, and other nations that are investing in energy research and development.

ARPA-E is one of those rare examples of smart green spending. It’s led to “huge strides” in energy storage technologies that might solve renewables’ intermittency problem. If you’re still not convinced, read these two essays published in our pages years ago.

The good news, if there’s any to be found on this decision to de-fund these federal science programs, is that initiatives like ARPA-E have bipartisan support in Congress, and are therefore likely to be able to resist (to a degree) this new pressure from the Trump administration.

The United States was able to remake its entire energy landscape in less than a decade thanks to the dual deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling. Those technologies were developed by private companies in tandem with federal researchers—fracking itself was pioneered by the Department of Energy in the 1970’s. This variety of government support—backing the research and development of next-gen technologies—can prove to be extremely valuable, and there’s an opportunity cost in axing it.

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  • Gary Hemminger

    If ARPA-E is also the funding that has allowed Lawrence Livermore Labs to fund fission technology research for decades with almost nothing to show for it, then cripple it I say. It would be nice to have a list of just what ARPA-E projects would be defunded, rather than just a blanket statement. Blanket statements of aren’t of much use in evaluating the defunding of ARPA-E (or anything else I might add).

  • Suzy Dixon

    Seems more like the onus is simply shifted to DARPA and DoD as well as closely associated contractors, like Raytheon, with end of the defense sequester. My nephew graduated from CalPoly and was recruited by DARPA years ago to do some really groundbreaking work on tiny micro batteries or something of that sort.

  • Andrew Allison

    Please provide one, just one, example of a useful ARPA-E project. Does anybody really think that a government agency is capable of a “moonshot”.

  • CaliforniaStark

    One of the two “convincing” past articles cited in the above post is an excellent read. “Life After Easy Oil” by Charles Doran from 2008. It is a vestige from the “peak oil period: A quote: “At present levels of demand, therefore, most oil economists agree that the global economy will run through the remaining deposits of easy oil much faster than the world consumed earlier ones, resulting in abruptly higher and unpredictable price levels.”

    The solution was a massive governmental RD&D program funded by taxes and tariffs on overseas oil. That program was ARPA-E: “That is why the one truly innovative aspect of the December 2007 energy bill was the creation of ARPA-E, the new energy-research arm of the Department of Energy.” The high cost of the program was not an issue:

    “We are a rich country. We can afford it. What we cannot afford is to be miserly. Only a high level of funding will enable all research facilities to expand in a systematic and committed fashion so as to get serious results by the end of this period. Even at $10 billion per year, research funding in the energy industry would still be below the 2.6 percent average for research funding across all U.S. industries. Again, this is a purse-string we cannot afford to cinch too tightly.”

    When Obama was elected, a government funding of this type of program blossomed, and billions of dollars were spent, particularly on renewable energy projects. The results were dismal. Many of the renewable projects went bankrupt, and today energy sources that were funded by these types of programs now provide only small amount of the nation’s power. Meanwhile, free enterprise lead by entrepreneurs like Harold Hamm, were responsible for the current energy boom, and the end of our dependency on Mideast oil. With the success of the shale boom, the result of private enterprise, there is no need for ARPA-E.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s better to spend this money defending Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.

    • Josephbleau

      Obama spent 100 million on vacation travel so likely Trump visiting his home in Fl will be a savings.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I suspect the costs for Trump security will exceed that in a single year.

        • CaliforniaStark

          Who are you trying to kid with this nonsense. Obama has Secret Service protection for the rest of his life; just as does Trump.

          Obama is presently spending 30 days on an exclusive French Polynesian resort island, formerly owned by Marlon Brando — the average cost is $13,000 per night. Assume the Secret Service is housed there as well. Last month Obama stayed at an exclusive resort in the British Virgin Islands owned by billionaire Richard Branson, and was flown their on Brandon’s private jet. Immediately upon leaving office Obama stayed at an exclusive and “ritzy” Rancho Mirage estate, and golfed on billionaire Larry Ellison’s private golf course.

          Both Trump and Obama are leading billionaire lifestyles; the difference is Trump’s is spending his own money, while Obama’s is paid for by other people.

          • FriendlyGoat

            You can be certain that the Secret Service details for ex-presidents are VERY small compared to actual presidents in office. Trump Tower is not an easy thing to protect. Neither is Mar-a-Lago. Neither is Trump’s traveling extended family. Neither is moving the president around on Air Force One. Trump’s “own money” is being used for this? Come on. You’re spoofin’ us all.

  • DISQUS Inferno

    Sadly, more often than not unattributed posts on TAI are junk.

    If the research really was this important
    – and obviously so (after all the lay-author of this post claims to be aware), it will be funded privately.

    Since the author doesn’t understand something this obvious, she has no insights to offer.

    Do TAI readers (and yourself) a favour. Stop bothering us w/ filler like this and spend the saved time reading.

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