Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Potemkin Laboratory

It might have been embarrassing for President Bush if, upon his arrival at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in order to tout his sudden conversion to the ranks of those concerned with dependence on fossil fuels, the press gaggle in tow was met with the uncomfortable fact that the Department of Energy had, in essence, just laid off 32 employees of the lab. Sort of an interesting way to usher in the new program for ending our addiction to foreign oil huh?

That's why the Bush administration snapped into lightning fast damage control and had those recently fired employees re-hired in advance of Bush's visit. From the AP:

President Bush on Tuesday acknowledged that Washington has sent "mixed signals" to one of the nation's premiere labs studying renewable energies - by first laying off, then reinstating, 32 workers just before his visit.

The president blamed the conflicting message on an appropriations mix-up in funding the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is developing the very renewable energy technologies the president is promoting. [...]

Two weeks ago, 32 workers, including eight researchers, were laid off at the lab.

Then, over the weekend, just before Bush's planned visit, the government restored the jobs.

His trip to the renewable energy laboratory is part of a two-day, three-state trip to promote the energy proposals Bush outlined in his State of the Union address.

At the direction of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, $5 million was transferred to the Midwest Research Institute, the operating contractor for the lab, to get the workers back on the job, the Energy Department announced Monday.
The problem for the Bush administration is that those funding "mix-ups" haven't been fully resolved quite yet - despite the recent application of a bandage that at least restored the friendly facade needed for Bush's visit. As should be expected, the recent "change of heart" signalled by Bush's SOTU speech hasn't quite filtered down through the Executive branch.

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said the decision restores only $5 million of the $28 million budget shortfall at the lab that forced the layoffs.

"The $5 million stopped the bodies from going out the door, but it doesn't provide the money for the (renewable energy) programs," Clapp said. [...]

Lab employee Tina Larney said that even though the jobs are being reinstated, she still questions the government's resolve in finding alternative energy sources.

"There is technology available now, there is the know-how now," Larney said. "What is lacking is leadership on the large scale at the national level." [...]

Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., co-chairman of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, said the government has funded only one-third of the money the 2005 energy bill authorized for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Clapp claims the president is promoting renewables because polls show his job approval numbers are being weighed down by Americans' concerns about high utility bills this winter and the cost of gasoline at the pump.[emphasis added]
I must admit, these funding shortfalls contribute to the impression that the renewable energy kick isn't really a priority to the Bush administration, but I sure hope I'm wrong on this. If this near-miss blown photo-op was really the result of some bureaucratic lag in matching allocations with policy mandates, and there has been a legitimate sea-change with respect to the Bush team's outlook on energy policy, then I expect the Bush administration to resolve those other appropriations-related kinks by fully funding the authorized programs of similar intent. Talk is cheap, and time is of the essence.

[UPDATE: The Cunning Realist has some more Potemkin-related blogging with TCR's maiden voyage of the "Potemkin Village Watch". In the words of TCR:

A new feature here at TCR. As long as the Grand Ole Opry is the most hostile territory into which President Bush ventures, and questions about Laura Bush's political aspirations are among the most challenging he takes from an audience, this space will chronicle the ongoing absurdity of it all.

During his visit to Florida, President Bush spoke at the Port of Tampa. Here are the questions that confronted the president in the order in which the "unscripted" and "unscreened" audience asked them...
Go read. It boggles the mind. Somewhere, deep down, I know this has to bother even die-hard Bush fans. Just a little?]

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