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Push for Energy Research Agency Accelerates, Despite Bicameral Divide

Democrats in both chambers are reviving long-stalled efforts to establish a new federal energy research agency, but the project — which is designed to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil — could be hampered by a House-Senate split over whether it should be an independent entity.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) today introduced legislation creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, which “would be responsible for conceiving, researching, and building new technologies to break America’s dependence on foreign oil,” he said in a press statement.

ARPA-E, as Baucus envisions it, would be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research office credited by Baucus for, among other things, developing the Internet. The bill — the Energy Research Act of 2007 — would limit the agency to roughly 250 people, including at least 180 technical staffers overseen by a single director and four deputies. To maintain innovation at the agency, staff tenure would be limited to three to six years.

The bill authorizes a steadily increasing budget for the agency, starting with $300 million for fiscal 2008 and maxing out at $2 billion for fiscal 2012.

Baucus’ plan breaks away from similar proposals that would house ARPA-E in the Department of Energy, favoring instead an independent status with a director appointed by the president.

“ARPA-E has to be about tomorrow, not about the tired energy policies of today,” Baucus said in a statement. “So to truly get outside the box, ARPA-E should be outside the Energy Department.”

Legislation introduced in January by House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) would house ARPA-E in Energy, an approach also favored in a bill introduced by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the 109th Congress. That bill, as well as an earlier effort by Gordon in the 109th, stalled in committee.

Gordon’s proposal also calls for organization of ARPA-E to be “very flat and nimble to avoid bureaucratic impediments that stifle innovation,” according to a bill summary. It would initially authorize $300 million for the agency, but would cap that amount at $915 million in fiscal 2013 at $915 million, less than half the amount provided for in the Baucus plan.

Gordon unsuccessfully tried to attach the bill to broader research legislation in the 109th Congress over the objections of then Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who expressed concerns about creating and funding a new federal agency.

The Senate Energy Committee in the 109th Congress passed legislation to boost research programs at the Department of Energy with provisions creating ARPA-E in the department. The bill did not receive a floor vote.

A spokesman for Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whose panel is likely to take up the bill, said that the chairman is “supportive of the creation of an ARPA-E. In fact, back in the 1990s, he was the first to propose such a program. He is open to any and all ideas on the topic.”

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