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Senators grill Perry over proposed DOE research cuts, cyber strategy

A panel of U.S. Senate lawmakers told Energy Secretary Rick Perry they are concerned with the U.S. Department of Energy's proposed spending cuts for research programs and asked whether the DOE is doing enough to protect the grid from cyberattacks.

The March 20 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was the latest of several appearances Perry has made on Capitol Hill to discuss the DOE's fiscal year 2019 budget request. The proposal would slash money for the agency's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, eliminate its Title 17 loan guarantee program for innovative energy technologies and terminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E, among other things.

"While we should always be looking for places to cut the budget, we should also recognize that innovation is critical to our nation's energy future," Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in her opening remarks. "We need to focus on maintaining our global leadership in science, research and development."

Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was more pointed in her criticisms. She said the requested elimination of ARPA-E and reductions in spending on efficiency and renewable energy "would kill science, innovation and DOE jobs."

Renewable energy technologies are not the only ones that would receive less money under the fiscal year 2019 budget request. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Perry why the Trump administration wants to cut DOE funding for carbon capture and sequestration by 80% despite being a vocal advocate for the coal industry, which would benefit from technologies to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Perry responded that "just because there's a reduction in a particular line item doesn't mean that the results we're going to be having are not appropriate. Our commitment to carbon capture utilization [and] storage is very strong." He gave a similar response to Cantwell when she asked about proposed budget declines for the DOE's national laboratories.

The energy secretary also stressed that he would follow lawmakers' instructions on appropriations, with Congress ultimately in charge of authorizing agency budgets. When asked by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., about the proposed termination of the Title 17 loan guarantee program, Perry said the department would use the billions of dollars Congress already appropriated for that program in a "thoughtful way."

"If this committee and Congress collectively decides to go forward with that program ... we will operate it with the type of oversight and transparency and the results that you all would be proud of," Perry said.

Cyber strategy

Despite fielding concerns over DOE research cuts, Perry received bipartisan praise for the department's decision to form a new office focused on cybersecurity. The head of the newly formed Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response, or CESER, will report directly to the undersecretary for energy. The office would receive $96 million under the White House's fiscal year 2019 budget request.

Murkowski said she was "intrigued" by the decision to form the new office, while Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, called the idea "very timely" and important. The U.S. government recently alerted the energy sector that Russia has been conducting a cyberattack campaign against critical American infrastructure, including energy assets.

But Cantwell, who asked the DOE in 2017 to investigate Russian attacks against the electric grid, said the department's proposed 10% increase for cybersecurity work "is not where we need to be," adding that she has "called for a doubling" in those investments. Without a complete assessment of the risks facing the grid, Cantwell said knowing what sufficient funding for this area will be is difficult. She also questioned Perry on comments he made at another recent hearing that he was not confident the federal government had a cybersecurity strategy.

Perry said he thought a cyber risk assessment at the DOE was "going on as we speak" and CESER would enhance the department's role as the energy sector-specific agency in charge of cyber and physical security.

The March 20 hearing was cut short because Perry was scheduled to meet at the White House with Saudi Arabian officials on possible cooperation on nuclear energy technologies between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The meeting is part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's visit to Washington, D.C.

During the shortened hearing, Cantwell mentioned speculation that Perry may leave his post at the DOE to head up the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Perry assured Cantwell that "I'll be here. I'm not going anywhere."