Morgan Griffith: America’s energy future depends on research

morgan griffithOn June 8, the House of Representatives passed the Energy and Water appropriations bill to fund the Department of Energy (DOE), among other programs.

The United States is in the middle of an energy boom, and I believe the Energy and Water bill we passed will help keep us on the right path. Energy policy is integral to the economic and national security of our country, and future energy policy depends on the investments in research we make now.

When it comes to the types of energy a national energy policy should encourage, “all of the above” is the right answer. That’s why I supported an amendment to the Energy and Water bill by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts, to increase funding to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy for offshore wind job training.

It’s also why I testified before the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Water, urging increased funding for research on fossil fuels. We in Southwest Virginia know that coal and other fossil fuels powered the growth of this country. These energy sources still provide jobs and reliable energy for many. But since they will be part of our energy supply for the foreseeable future, it’s worth exploring how they might be burned more cleanly. The energy appropriations bill recognizes this fact and increases funding for core fossil fuel research.

Some of the subjects that fossil energy researchers currently work on offer exciting possibilities for the future.

For example, this bill provides $20 million to fund programs that develop technologies to extract rare earth elements. The extraction of rare earth elements holds great promise for the economy in our part of the world, potentially offering a second act for coal.

Rare earth elements are certain metallic elements that serve vital purposes in many cutting-edge technologies. The “rarity” in their name describes the difficulty in separating these elements rather than their scarcity.

The United States currently relies on imports, mostly from China, to supply rare earth elements. If we want to enjoy the economic benefits of these elements and enjoy a measure of self-sufficiency in supplying them, investments in better extraction technology are required.

The possibility of extracting rare earth elements from coal and its byproducts means Southwest Virginia in particular stands to gain from developing extraction technologies. Research shows promising signs of obtaining rare earth elements from coal refuse such as slag heaps and gob piles. The funding provided in the Energy and Water appropriations bill goes to programs such as the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies (CAST), a partnership between Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, and the University of Kentucky.

CAST’s director, Dr. Roe-Hoan Yoon, is a professor at Virginia Tech and a leader in the field. I have met with Dr. Yoon several times, and he spoke at a symposium on the future of coal I convened in 2016.

Under Dr. Yoon’s leadership, Virginia Tech and its partners have received federal funding for research projects, including $6 million awarded last year for a pilot plant in the coalfields of central Appalachia. The pilot plant will test separation techniques and hopefully yield information about which are most promising for widespread commercial use.

With continued federal support, we could soon see a breakthrough. Viable technologies to separate rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts would offer tantalizing prospects for the future of the coalfields economy.

Dr. Yoon once observed to me that of the many energy sources used by humans throughout history, only one has been largely discarded: the whale oil that once lit lamps. Others, such as wood and charcoal, may have been supplanted but not entirely rejected. So while we research energy for the future, it is important to continue working on ways to make the energy sources of today safer and more efficient.

No energy spending bill can fund all that we want, and there are parts of this one I am less enthusiastic about than others. But I believe the appropriations that passed the House on June 8 will stoke the fire for continued American energy innovation.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.

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