updated 2/21/2006 3:53:43 PM ET 2006-02-21T20:53:43

President Bush, on a three-state trip to promote his energy policy, said Tuesday that a budgeting mix-up was the reason 32 workers at one of the nation’s premier renewable energy labs were laid off — and then reinstated just before his visit.

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Bush addressed the funding problem as soon as he began speaking here at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is developing the sort of renewable energy technologies the president is promoting.

“Sometimes, decisions made as the result of the appropriations process, the money may not end up where it was supposed to have gone,” Bush said.

“My message to those who work here is we want you to know how important your work is. We appreciate what you’re doing and we expect you to keep doing it, and we want to help you keep doing it.”

Eleventh-hour capitalization
Two weeks ago, the lab workers, including eight researchers, were laid off at the lab because of a $28 million budget shortfall. Then, over the weekend, at the direction of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, $5 million was transferred back to the lab to get the workers back on the job.

Lab officials are ecstatic about getting the positions back, although they say the remaining $23 million shortfall has forced delays in research subcontracted to universities and companies. Still, it was an untimely issue for the president, who flew to Colorado to push the energy initiatives he announced in his State of the Union address.

The president has proposed a 22 percent increase in funding for clean-energy technology research at the Energy Department. He wants to change the way the nation fuels its vehicles and powers homes and businesses by focusing on nuclear, solar and wind power as well as better batteries to power hybrid-electric autos and hydrogen-fueled cars.

“The idea is to have an automobile, say, that can drive 40 miles on the battery ... and if you’re living in a big city, that’s probably all you’re going to need for that day’s driving,” Bush said. “And then you can get home and plug your car right into the outlet in your house. We’re close to this.”

Critics call proposals modest
Critics of the administration’s energy policies say Bush’s proposals are modest, and that the president is promoting renewable energy because polls show his job approval numbers are being weighed down by American’s concern about high utility bills and the price of gasoline.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who wrote letters and had discussions with Bush administration officials to get the jobs restored, said the president’s 2007 budget is a first step toward energy independence, not the last. Breaking America’s addiction to foreign oil is not a modest goal and will require more than a modest commitment of effort and funds, he says.

“As the premier renewable energy lab, it makes no sense to begin an effort to achieve America’s energy independence with cuts to the lab that will likely lead the way,” said Drew Nanis, a spokesman for Salazar.

Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this year’s energy efficiency and renewable energy portion of the budget is slightly smaller than that in the last year of the previous administration. When inflation is factored in, it amounts to a decrease of more than $130 million, he said.

‘Photo-ops driven by polls’
“This is a series of photo-ops entirely driven by polls that tell the president that he isn’t doing enough on energy,” said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. “The president is talking a good game, but his budget doesn’t back it up.”

Before holding a panel discussion with lab, business and other officials, Bush toured a “mini brewery” where the lab makes ethanol — a replacement for gasoline — from the stalks and other nonfood parts of corn, said George Douglas, media relations manager at the lab.

Ethanol already is made from corn. In the late 1980s and 1990s, research was done to see if it was worthwhile to remove sugar, used in making ethanol, from the non-kernel parts of the corn, which farmers typically plow under.

During a panel discussion, Dan Arvizu, director of the lab, explained in scientific terms how the process is done. Bush interrupted to translate for the layman: “I think what he’s saying is that one of these days we’re going to take wood chips, put them through a factory, and there’s going to be fuel you can put in your car.”

On Monday, Bush stopped in Milwaukee at Johnson Controls, which is developing advanced batteries for hybrid-electric autos. Outside Detroit, Bush toured United Solar Ovonic, a maker of flexible film products that convert sunlight into energy.

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