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Bush visits alternative energy research lab


GOLDEN, Colo. -- President Bush visited a major energy research laboratory yesterday to promote his administration's new campaign to develop alternatives to U.S. reliance on oil - an appearance that inadvertently spotlighted funding problems for such programs.

Before Bush's stop, it took some quick changes to federal spending plans to undo job cuts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that he was visiting - staff reductions that would have undercut Bush's message.

On Sunday, the Energy Department said it was rehiring 32 workers, including researchers, at the lab. A budget shortfall had led to the layoffs days after Bush unveiled his energy program in the State of the Union address Jan. 31.

Opening his remarks to about 200 people gathered in a warehouse for a panel discussion on renewable energy technology, Bush said, "I recognize that there has been some interesting, let me say, mixed signals, when it comes to funding."

The incident underscored that Bush has only recently embraced the sort of research that the lab pursues. It also demonstrated the pressures the administration will face as it seeks to decrease the federal budget deficit, maintain tax cuts and pay for the cost of the war in Iraq while embarking on Bush's new energy plan.

When the lab opened in 1977, its focus was on solar energy. Since then, its research has expanded to advance the use of wind power, fuel derived from agricultural products and the use of hydrogen and geothermal power to meet the nation's energy needs. It also works on developing energy-efficient buildings.

But the lab has had to fight to maintain its funding. The Energy Department's overall budget for renewable energy programs was cut for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, and the lab was targeted for some of the decreases.

The lab's funding increased briefly at the start of the Bush administration, reaching a peak of $229.8 million in 2003 before falling each subsequent year. Next year's spending request would begin to reverse that downturn.

The programs at the lab that are part of the president's new Advanced Energy Initiative are receiving $157 million in 2006; that would increase to $170 million in 2007.

Bush's tour of the lab concluded a two-day trip to facilities searching for the type of technological improvements that would spur greater energy efficiency.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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