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Why a Boring, Bureaucratic Reorganization at the Department of Energy Might Be Worse Than It Seems

, senior energy analyst | January 31, 2018, 4:40 pm EDT
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Organizational charts: possibly the most boring topic you can imagine. So why is the reorganization of a federal agency (in this case the Department of Energy, or DOE) the subject of a January 30 Congressional hearing in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee? I listened in to the live webcast of the hearing so that I could get the low-down on what this reorganization could mean for the future of basic and applied research at DOE. Early indications are that the administration will seek to cut clean energy research by 72 percent.

A Tale of Two Org Charts

Back in December, Energy Secretary Perry announced that his agency is planning to “modernize” its internal organizational structure “to advance its policy goals consistent with its statutory requirements.” That means a new org chart. It includes a big change from the previous administration: splitting the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy into two: The Office of the Under Secretary for Science and the Office of the Under Secretary for Energy. Sounds harmless enough—why should this matter? While reasonable people disagree on what impact this may have on DOE’s operations and priorities—see this great summary piece—this change is potentially significant to our nation’s science and research enterprises and worth keeping an eye on.

The previous org chart, established by former Energy Secretary Moniz in 2013, combined the two Under Secretary positions. Moniz justified the change, arguing that the department required “the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration, and deployment” and that there was an advantage to having the majority of the National Labs within one department. He also highlighted the change as necessary for the innovation ecosystem for clean energy, which was critical for implementing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. However, in March 2017, the current president rescinded the Climate Action Plan, along with a whole host of other efforts aimed at addressing climate change.

Justification

Instead of drawing attention to the administration’s ongoing work to sideline efforts to address climate change, Secretary Perry’s team refers to this DOE reorganization as “modernizing” the agency. Ironically, dividing Energy and Science into different offices returns the agency closer to how it was organized a decade ago. The witnesses from the Congressional hearing, the two men nominated and confirmed to lead the two new offices, suggested that this change was consistent with the intent of Congress. Congressman Beyer (VA-08) pushed back on the implication that former Secretary Moniz acted improperly in splitting them up; reading from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (see video at about 1:16:07), he noted that the responsibilities of the Under Secretary for Science include both “basic and applied research” and suggested that the applied energy technologies offices could well fall under the purview of the Office of Science according to the statute.

In any case, the Secretary of Energy has broad discretion to organize the department and his own team as he sees fit, consistent with the law. The whole question of Congressional intent, in the end, appears to be a red herring. The real reason behind this change (justified by claims of modernization and Congressional intent) is to establish an artificial wall between basic and applied science. This could give leeway to the Administration to push for even deeper cuts for whatever it deems to be applied research—which could include a wide range of vital programs in clean energy and energy efficiency, our national labs, the applied energy technology offices, and R&D that supports the clean energy innovation ecosystem. Simply put, by separating the two offices Secretary Perry is laying the groundwork for the administration to cleave the research efforts they don’t want out of the DOE.

How will this happen? The President’s FY 2018 budget, released almost a year ago, offers a clue: It proposed the largest reduction in funding for scientific research seen in the last 40 years. What’s worse, the administration clearly prioritizes “basic and early-stage” R&D, but continues to suggest that “applied research”—especially technologies that are near commercialization—are best left to the private sector and not worthy of federal investments. In this week’s House hearing, several committee members questioned the witnesses about the distinction between basic and early-stage research and its implications for budget priorities, and the Under Secretaries indicated that they did not support many of the cuts that were proposed by the administration last year.

The chart below shows how last year’s budget proposal included much greater cuts for applied research compared to basic research. Basic Energy Sciences, within the Office of Science, was slated for a 16 percent cut, but many of the applied technology offices were facing cuts upwards of nearly 70 percent or more, including research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). What’s in store for this year’s proposal?

 

Our National Labs: A “Crown Jewel”

Interestingly, Secretary Perry has repeatedly promised to defend DOE scientists and research, calling the nation’s 17 National Labs a “crown jewel.” He should know that the National Labs work on both basic and applied research because solving real-world problems requires both. DOE’s Labs develop and invest in breakthrough technologies that are too risky or too expensive for the private sector, and represent a wise investment of taxpayer money.

The ideological distinction between basic and applied research creates an artificial barrier which makes it harder for us to innovate and make breakthroughs. In DOE’s case, it will devastate the work of the National Labs—which are vitally important to our scientific competitiveness—and could force massive job losses in these institutions that are vital to local economies.

We’re Watching

In all the hoopla following the President’s first State of the Union address, we’re paying attention to his ongoing attacks on clean energy. We’ll be watching to see how this reorganization at DOE pans out. We’ll be watching the White House budget proposal (which could be released in just a few weeks) to see his flawed priorities. In fact, our team has already been following these attacks—from DOE’s bogus FERC proposal aimed at bailing out uneconomic coal and nuclear plants that was ultimately rejected, to the president’s decision to slap a 30 percent tariff on foreign made solar panels that threatens thousands of installer jobs in one of the fastest growing industries today. Be sure to follow this ongoing blog series, where we will spotlight administration efforts to hamper the development of clean energy.

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