Two U.S. Department of Energy offices, including one that maintains the U.S. nuclear arsenal, are sitting on a growing pile of unspent funds.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that while most federal funding has an expiration date, with unspent funds returned to the U.S. Treasury, the Department of Energy receives billions of dollars in allocations that are not time-limited, with unspent funds carried over from one year to the next.

For fiscal 2021, a total of $14.1 billion accumulated in carryover balances from the department’s Office of Environmental Management and the National Nuclear Security Administration, it said.

The report found that the offices generally spent older funds before newer ones, these carryover balances can exceed the minimum needed to support programs, thereby tying up resources that could be put to other uses.

“How much is $14 billion dollars? Possibly enough to fill a gold vault,” tweeted Allison Bawden, the director of the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team.

EM had about $3.2 billion in total carryover balances, and NNSA had $10.9 billion.

Only 1.4 percent of the total carryover was appropriated more than five years ago, according to the report. The report also showed that carryover balances at the offices increased over four of the past five fiscal years.

These massive rollovers happen because many funds appropriated to EM and NNSA by Congress are available until they are expended. With the authority to keep hold of “no-year” funds, these offices may retain unobligated dollars indefinitely. That’s not as ideal as it sounds; carryover balances can translate to program deficiencies within an agency by bogging down a program with more resources than it can use.

Excessive carryover balances can also threaten to bottle up funds that could be appropriated by Congress for other priorities.

The report identified several reasons for the excessive carryovers. Some can fully explain a large carryover, such as continuing resolutions, long-lead procurements, and the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, an office may keep un-costed balances to ensure that they can continue operations with the limited funds available during a continuing resolution, which can create uncertainty for an agency.

Other reasons offer context for high carryovers, especially when an office faces unanticipated changes to program scope, challenges with construction execution or problems with procurement.

EM works to clean up radioactive and hazardous contamination caused by nuclear energy and weapons production and research. NNSA addresses the corollary by maintaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons cache and supporting nuclear non-proliferation.

Overall in fiscal 2021, the Department of Energy received about $61 billion in budgetary resources.

The department fully anticipates spending its carryover balance eventually.

The offices routinely carries over funds from year to year, “because many DOE-funded activities cannot be completed in a single year,” said a DOE spokesperson in a statement provided to Federal Times.

Molly Weisner is a reporter for Federal Times where she covers industry issues pertaining to the government workforce. She's made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a producer and worked on The New York Times's print desk as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism and French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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