RICHLAND — Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employees have been warned that 100 to 600 jobs could be lost under the budget passed by the Republican-controlled House for the remainder of the fiscal year.
However, that's a worst-case scenario estimate as lab leaders try to determine the impact of various budget scenarios, said Mike Kluse, director of the Department of Energy national lab in Richland. He sent a memo to employees Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled Senate agreed with the House to extend the continuing resolution that funds the government until March 18. Congress failed to pass a federal budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, and the continuing resolution extension for two weeks will give the House and Senate more time to agree on funding levels for the rest of the fiscal year.
The House has approved a budget that includes deep cuts. Last month, it voted in favor of a continuing resolution that would set funding for the remainder of the year at $100 billion below what President Obama recommended for fiscal 2011 in a proposal made more than a year ago. It includes deep cuts to programs that pay for research at PNNL and other national laboratories.
If left intact, the cuts would "effectively end America's legendary status as the leader of the worldwide scientific community, putting the United Sates at a distinct disadvantage when competing with other nations in the global marketplace," wrote Raymond Orbach, the former head of the DOE Office of Science, in an abstract for a Science magazine article.
The House version of the budget includes a $1 billion cut to the DOE Office of Science and a $900 million cut to the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. In addition, it cuts research for the Department of Homeland Security from $800 million to $290 million.
Losses proposed for those three large programs account for the estimate of up to 600 jobs lost among PNNL's 4,900 employees. About 4,500 of those jobs are in Richland.
But because PNNL gets money from so many sources -- less than 20 percent of its budget is from the DOE Office of Science -- a potential job loss under the House budget has been difficult to determine. The cuts in the House budget would be deeper at some other national labs.
Leaders at Battelle, which operates PNNL, and the Tri-City Development Council have been meeting with Washington's congressional delegation to make sure they understand how the possible cuts would affect the lab.
"As the budget reaches the Senate, Sen. Cantwell will fight to preserve these 600 high-tech jobs at PNNL," said Jared Leopold, spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "We need to rein in spending, while preserving good-paying Washington state jobs like those at PNNL."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said after the two-week continuing resolution was passed that deep but responsible cuts will have to be made to the administration's 2011 budget proposal. But she's concerned about the House budget's effect on PNNL.
"There are smart budget cuts we can make, then there is this kind of cut -- one that hurts workers, families and our economic growth," she said in a statement Thursday.
Both senators are concerned about the effect the cuts would have in the role PNNL plays in scientific innovation and global competition.
The local impact to PNNL would hurt, Kluse said. But the larger impact would be to the nation at a time it needs to make a full-court press on developing alternative fuels, methods of capturing and storing energy and cleaner ways to burn hydrocarbons, he said.
"It's a very unfortunate time not to sustain stable funding," he said.
The two-week extension to the current continuing resolution "gives us more time to demonstrate to Congress the value of DOE's national laboratories -- what they do and why they matter," Kluse said in his message to employees. "... We are doing all that we can to engage and communicate the value of the national laboratories and their role in solving critical national challenges."
Half of the U.S. economic growth since 1945 can be attributed to investments in science and technology, according to PNNL. Labs such as the one in Richland advance the basic science that proceeds technical innovations, it said.
Rebuilding programs that are disassembled after top scientists leave because of lack of money can take decades, Kluse said.
The budget proposed by the Obama administration last month for fiscal 2012 called for increased money for the DOE Office of Science. But the fiscal 2011 budget that the House and Senate agree on will set the tone for next year, Kluse said.
Deep cuts to budgets that effect both PNNL and also the Hanford nuclear reservation this late in the fiscal year would produce little savings, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.
After a budget is set, DOE must decide where to make cuts and then individual programs must decide staffing changes. Then laid off employees must be given 90 days notice, bringing the process to the final months of the budget year.
"This is not the way to improve our international competitiveness," he said.
The Hanford budget also could be cut, but the amount is difficult to determine since DOE would decide how to distribute money among its environmental cleanup sites. But any loss of jobs at Hanford would be in addition to an estimated 1,600 layoffs as the last of federal economic stimulus money is spent at Hanford this year.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has been discussing the House budget with PNNL officials, said Erin Daly of his staff. He recognizes the value of PNNL, she said.
* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; email@example.com