An Energy Department tale: Captain Perry and the great white whale

By Robert Alvarez, December 14, 2016

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For nearly 40 years, the US Department of Energy has been to political conservatives what the great white whale was to Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. While running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan put the elimination of this agency on the short list of things he vowed to do at the outset. Very soon after his election, Reagan met this great white whale and, after realizing the department’s primary function was to make and maintain the nuclear arsenal, decided to steer his ship away from it.

With a land-base greater than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, the Energy Department is responsible for the largest government-owned research and industrial complex in the United States. In several Western states, the sprawling Energy Department complex is a dominant economic force that can make or break statewide elections. Under the Obama administration, the department has become an important player in the auto and electric power industries.

But it appears that the Trump transition team has no clue about how all the elements of the Energy Department fit together. The transition team sent the department a memo, made public last week, that asks 74 questions, among other things requesting the names of specific Energy staffers who worked on climate change-related research. The Obama administration refused to supply the names, and on Wednesday the Trump transition appeared to back away from the questionnaire, explaining that it had not authorized the memo and the employee who’d sent it had been “counseled.”  

After reading these 74 questions, this is what I surmise the Trump team would like to do:

  • Identify federal and contractor employees involved in climate change activities they want to marginalize or get rid of. To its credit, the Energy Department is refusing to provide these names.
  • Freeze all new federal hires and set the stage for layoffs.
  • Seriously curtail the department’s renewable energy and conservation programs.
  • Figure out the department’s contracting maze. (Good luck on that one!)
  • Figure out how to reduce cleanup spending at profoundly contaminated nuclear weapons sites, which now rus around $6 billion per year, with an estimated total liability approaching $400 billion.
  • Find ways to restart the licensing of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site for spent power reactor fuel.
  • Spend more on nuclear research and development, especially for small modular reactors. If you consider both fission and fusion, however, nuclear research and development consumed about $2 billion in the 2016 fiscal year—the single largest fraction (40 percent) of all Energy Department R&D funding
  • Stem the accelerating closure of aging, uneconomical nuclear power plants.
  • Muzzle the Energy Information Administration, to eliminate analysis regarding carbon emissions.
  • Question whether the Energy Department’s national laboratories have engaged in research that ushered in commercial achievements.

Like Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Trump team appears to have ignored the Energy Department’s great white whale: responsibility for maintaining some 7,000 nuclear warheads and the rest of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. Military nuclear spending is the single largest piece of the Energy Department budget, making up nearly two-thirds of the total, and that budget area is experiencing out-of-control cost escalation.

In fact, beyond adopting the Heritage Foundation’s regressive agenda—supporting fossil fuels, cutting back on the workforce, stamping out climate change research and development, trying to stave off collapse of the nuclear power industry, and cutting funds for environmental cleanup—the Trump team doesn’t seem to know much at all about the Energy Department. The transition’s questionnaire doesn’t mention such small matters as disposition of huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons materials and radioactive wastes; the Power Marketing Administration, which manages hydroelectric projects providing electricity to wide swaths of the Western United States; the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, which manages the country’s naval reactors; and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s non-proliferation efforts. 

Now, Trump has nominated former Texas Gov. Rick Perry—a person who vowed, as a presidential candidate, to get rid of the Energy Department but couldn’t remember its name. At least Captain Ahab knew that much.


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