US energy programs: out of gas?

By , Business correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Government-sponsored energy conservation programs may be virtually eliminated. Solar's federal funding will fall further into eclipse. Wind energy systems likely will lose 84 percent of their government dollars, and even the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will suffer deep budget cuts.

Washington's role in shaping how the United States uses energy, already altered during the Reagan administration's first year, now faces further drastic changes. Department of Energy (DOE) working budget documents for fiscal year 1983, obtained by the Monitor, reflect the administration's position that renewable energy sources should depend on private funds for development. Fossil fuel programs also face stiff cuts -- while nuclear weapons, with a 17 percent increase, constitute over 70 percent of the proposed federal energy budget. The Energy Department, working closely with the Pentagon, oversees nuclear weapon development.

''When the administration first proposed its '82 budget for solar, we characterized it as a 'solar eclipse,' '' says a Democratic congressional aide who specializes in energy. ''The '83 budget, for solar and renewable energy, we're characterizing as a 'black hole.' ''

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In addition, the White House will ask Congress to pass the ''Federal Energy Reorganization Act of 1982,'' the long-awaited Department of Energy breakup bill. DOE's functions, according to the budget documents, would be dispersed to the departments of Commerce, Interior, Justice, and Agriculture, as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

A cover letter attached to the DOE working budget highlights the agency's uncertain future. Managers ''should delete references to the 'Department of Energy' in headings,'' it says, ''and leave those spaces blank.'' Here's a summary of some of the main provisions in that budget document:

* Conservation. The cuts which perhaps most symbolize the Reagan administration's free-market philosophy about energy are those affecting conservation programs. Conservation, in this view, is not something to be urged on you by the government. Instead, it is a function of cost - when the price of energy gets too high, demand for it will fall off.

Overall, conservation programs face a proposed cut of about 94 percent in their federal funding. (These figures are from a DOE budget submitted to Office of Management and Budget for approval. While not final, it is unlikely the administration's budget for fiscal year '83 will have higher numbers when it is submitted, early in February.)

Conservation research programs -- which study ways to save energy in buildings, industry, and transportation -- would be cut $124.5 million, to $19.3 million. Energy conservation grants to state and local governments would go from

* Renewable energy sources. Renewable energy resources will also find fewer government dollars to ease their entry into the marketplace.

Active and passive solar heating programs, funded at about $10 million apiece for fiscal year (FY) 1982, would both be eliminated in 1983. Solar information systems and the Solar Energy Research Institute would also be zeroed out.

Photovoltaic energy systems would go from $77 million to $27.6 million. The solar thermal program would drop from $55 million to $18.4 million.

Government support for wind energy would die to a soft breeze: dropping 84 percent, to $5.6 million. Spending on biomass fuel,geothermal energy research, and alcohol fuel development would be sharply cut too.

Federal money for hydropower development would dry up entirely. And ocean systems - primarily OTEC, the Hawaiian test project researching energy from the ocean's temperature layers -- would be scuttled.

Renewable energy advocates contend that the administration's ''energy free market'' really means ''energy free market, except for oil and atomic energy.'' Through continued federal backing for such items as the oil depletion allowance and the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, they claim, the hand of government works against the development of solar and other renewable technologies.

''This administration's energy policy has had and probably will continue to have internal contradictions,'' says Dick Munson, director of the Solar Lobby. ''We're just asking them to give solar a fair shake.''

Solar energy, fair shake or no, is a fast-growing business - up 40 percent last year, by industry estimates. And overt federal aid for traditional fossil fuels is being cut, too.

* Fossil fuels. Overall, Washington's fossil energy programs stand to lose about 75 percent of their money, dropping from $436 million to $107 million.

Oil shale research and development, for instance, would slide by two-thirds, to $6.3 million. Coal gasification and liquefaction research, with '82 funds of would lose 62 percent of its budget.

And the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would lose $1.4 billion -- though $2.4 billion would still be available in '83 to pour petroleum into Southern salt domes. Only $242 million of the oil stockpile's cost is counted on budget. The rest is carried as off-budget financing -- agency financing not carried out through the general budget submitted to Congress by the President.

* Nuclear weapons. Any budget-cutting attempts have just glinted off atomic weapons programs. With a 17 percent increase to $5.5 billion, such programs would account for over 70 percent of the approximately $7.7 billion federal energy budget.

Much of the spending can be attributed to weapons research. Weapons production and surveillance costs, for instance, would go from $1.5 billion in ' 82 to $2 billion in '83.

* DOE reorganization. Sometime this session, the White House will send to Capitol Hill a bill to sunder the Department of Energy into component programs, to be dispersed among other branches of government.

Key members of Congress, such as Sen. James McClure (R) of Idaho, Energy Committee chairman, have expressed reservations about the DOE reorganization -- so the breakup is far from a foregone conclusion.

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