New energy department not brightest solution

T he energy crisis of the 1970s led to the creation of a U.S. Department of Energy, as politicians sought to assure the public they were responding seriously to the situation.

But what did the creation of yet another federal department do for Americans, in terms of lessening our dependence on oil imports or diversifying our energy portfolio?

The current “crisis,” 30 years later, is answer enough.

Instead of learning the 30-year-old lesson — that another federal agency will not solve whatever problems we have — members of Congress are engaged in a repeat performance, demonstrating the bankruptcy of imagination in Washington.

The House Science Committee approved a bill last week that would create a new Department of Energy research branch, modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that would focus on energy-technology breakthroughs instead of weapons.

It’s a terrible idea.

Set aside the question of whether the super-secret DARPA is the right model to follow, since evidence isn’t readily available one way or another. But DOE must have a dozen existing entities that could do such work, including numerous national laboratories. And there are plenty of top-flight universities that could do this sort of research with competitively awarded government grants.

The creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy seems redundant, gratuitous and wasteful — a point made by Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, who said: “I have a problem with the idea of creating a new bureaucracy within the Department of Energy that will, regardless of intention, fight for money with existing and future programs at DOE.”

The idea was approved by a key congressional committee, however, which also approved a cool $5 billion to get it off the ground.

One purpose DARPA-energy would serve, however, is directing scads of money to the states and districts of well-positioned members of Congress. This has the strong whiff of pork barrel about it, in other words. It’s more about bringing home the bacon than finding energy breakthroughs.

One amendment to the bill is intended to limit the ability of members to “earmark” DARPA-energy funds for pet projects. But members undoubtedly approved the amendment with a wink and a nod, knowing full well they’ll find ways around the anti-earmarking provisions when the funds really start flowing and the public has lost interest in the subject.