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In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Energy. Some forty years later, the DOE is a $30 billion agency, employing nearly 100,000 people. The DOE's tasks include maintaining and guarding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, safeguarding the electrical grid, overseeing the national-science labs, monitoring climate change, and numerous other energy-related functions. It is now under the stewardship of former Texas Governor, and failed presidential candidate, Rick Perry, who, when asked at one of the Republican Party's presidential debates which government departments he would eliminate, quickly reeled off the names of the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education. And then he said: "The third agency of government I would do away with … Education … the ahhhh … ahhh … Commerce, and let's see. I can't, the third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops."
That "oops" was a stand-in for the Department of Energy.
Sciencemag.org has reported that since Trump's inauguration, his "administration has removed mentions of climate change and clean energy from websites and blocked scientists from attending conferences, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists."
In a Vanity Fair article headlined "The 5th Risk," best-selling author Michael Lewis -- who has the unique ability to uncover fascinating and thought-provoking subjects, and weave them into indispensible books and articles -- takes us inside the DOE, where the man in charge has publicly advocated the agency's elimination.
Immediately after the election, while DOE staffers extensively prepared for the transition, and a smooth turnover, there was dead silence from Team Trump. Finally, two weeks after the election, Trump created a "Landing Team," and it "was led by, and mostly consisted of, a man named Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, which upon inspection, proved to be a Washington, D.C., propaganda machine funded with millions of dollars from ExxonMobil and Koch Industries," Lewis reported.
Pyle's role "seriously alarmed," folks at the DOE. Around Thanksgiving week, Pyle finally met for about an hour with DOE officials, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, and DOE chief of staff Kevin Knobloch. Pyle, Lewis pointed out, "appeared to have no interest in anything [Moniz} had to say."
However, Pyle was very interested in questions related to climate change. He sent an extensive questionnaire, which included questions about which DOE "employees or contractors … attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meeting"; and which employees "attended any of the Conference of the Parties (under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in the last five years?"
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Although Pyle's invasive questionnaire was eventually published in Bloomberg News, and the Trump administration disavowed it, it clearly set the tone for how Team Trump would deal with climate change; which culminated with pulling out of the Paris Accords.
A group called "the Beachhead Team," which according to one former DOE officially, "ran around the building insulting people," later replaced Pyle. "We tried desperately to prepare them," Tarak Shah, chief of staff for the DOE's $6 billion basic-science program, told Lewis. "But that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn't. They didn't ask for even an introductory briefing."
'Looking for dirt' in all the wrong places
As Lewis, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, and author of such books as Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, reported, "Roughly half of the DOE's annual budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal," including two billion "to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn't fall into the hands of terrorists."
Unconcerned about nitty-gritty issues, Team Trump seemed more concerned with "looking for dirt" on DOE staff.
Five-plus months after Trump's inauguration, Lewis visited DOE office "to see what was going on." While still early in his tenure at the time, Perry, who reportedly spent little time for former Secretary Moniz, seemed to be taking on a more "ceremonial and bizarre" role. Lewis noted that Perry's "public communications have had in them something of the shell-shocked grandmother trying to preside over a pleasant family Thanksgiving dinner while pretending that her blind-drunk husband isn't standing naked on the dining-room table waving the carving knife over his head."
Programs that experienced reasonable success – with a few notable exceptions, like the solar-energy company Solyndra – have been frozen: "The biggest change is the grinding to a halt of any proactive work," a DOE permanent employee told Lewis. "For a majority of the workforce it's been demoralizing," he added.
Where will the DOE go from here?
Lewis spends a fair amount of time with John MacWilliams, a former member of a "prestigious" law and an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, who quit Goldman to be a novelist. When writing seemed unrewarding – despite writing a first novel titled The Fire Dream – MacWilliams became a founding member of the Beacon Group, a private investment firm, focusing in part on a fund "that specifically invested in the energy field," Lewis notes.
When Ernest Moniz was named energy secretary he turned to MacWillams. MacWilliams accepted. After a fairly short learning period, he understood that the DOE "contained a collection of programs and offices without a clear organizing principle," Lewis reported. "About half of its budget … went to maintaining the nuclear arsenal and protecting Americans from nuclear threats. … A quarter of its budget went into a rattlebag of programs aimed at shaping Americans' access to, and use of, energy."
"The office of science in DOE is not the office of science for DOE. It's the office of science for all science in America," MacWilliams told Lewis. MacWilliams became the DOE's "first-ever chief risk officer." By the time he left office, his team "prepared its own books," but he never got the opportunity to talk with the Trump people.
Lewis asked MacWilliams for a list of the "top five risks" Americans need to be concerned about. And while determining the top five is practically impossible, MacWilliams did attempt to sort them out from a much larger list.
"At the very top of his list is an accident with nuclear weapons," Lewis points out. Then there's North Korea, followed by Iran, although MacWilliams believes that the Iran nuclear deal is being policed quite well. The fourth risk is the safety of the electrical grid.
And risk five is blandly stated as "Project management," which translates into benign neglect, which translates into the slashing of the DOE's budget, which translates into Rick Perry moving his anti-DOE agenda.
There may be a sliver of a silver lining, David B. Goldstein, co-director of the NRDC's Energy Program pointed out in a blog post titled "The Department of Energy Is Failing to Do Its Job." Goldstein maintained that legally, Perry can't go all balls-to-the-wall in tearing apart the DOE. According to Goldstein, the DOE "was not created to allow the executive branch to do whatever it wants, or even to decide where its priorities lie within the full range of its authority on energy policy. It was "established by Public Law 95-91 … to do specified things with congressionally mandated goals and priorities." Nevertheless, "The Rick Perry DOE is undercutting all of those goals and priorities."
Perry has "proposed budget cuts funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by a staggering 70%." However, "The law that established DOE also sets priorities for the Department. An administration can only "re-prioritize" within the framework of placing the highest priorities on efficiency and renewable energy. A proposal to cut the budget for clean energy drastically is in conflict with those legally required priories."
"The point is," Goldstein wrote, "that the chairman was committed to carrying out the law rather than substituting his policy judgment as a bureaucrat for the legal requirements of the agency he chaired. Rick Perry should do the same."
These days, as Wired's Ashley Feinberg recently reported, DOE staff is undergoing mandatory government-wide training sessions on "the importance of protecting classified and controlled unclassified information." The Trump administration appears to be "conflating leaks of classified information with more routine, perfectly legal disclosures."
It appears that the Trump administration's budget-cutting, its search of short-term solutions to long-term problems, and its "willful ignorance," as Michael Lewis termed it, is being writ large over how the DOE is proceeding. Given current indicators, Rick Perry's greatest "Oops" moment is yet to come.