Donald Trump’s presidential transition team has asked the Department of Energy for the names of any federal employees who worked on certain aspects of climate policy during the Obama administration — a request that has some onlookers worried about a “modern-day political witch hunt.”
In a memo first reported by Bloomberg and posted by E&E News here, Trump’s team asked the Energy Department a series of 74 questions to prepare for the change in government control. Some of them are perfectly innocuous, like question #49:
What should the incoming Administration do to balance risk, performance and ultimately completion in contracting?
But the one that’s really eye-catching is question #27, which reads as follows:
Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any lnteragency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings? Can you provide a list of when those meetings were and any materials distributed at those meetings, EPSA emails associated with those meetings, or materials created by Department employees or contractors in anticipation of or as a result of those meetings?
Some context: Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has developed an internal “social cost of carbon” metric to justify various climate policies, drawing on input from federal agencies across the government. This is an estimate of the climate damage caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emitted. So if a new regulation reduces CO2, that can be used to quantify that regulation’s benefits.
Both Republicans in Congress and various conservatives now on Trump’s transition team, like David Kreutzer of the Heritage Foundation, have fiercely opposed this metric, since it can be used to justify fairly robust climate policies. (Kreutzer has called it “fundamentally flawed”.) It was widely expected that the Trump administration would stop using the social cost of carbon — and they have plenty of leeway to do so.
What’s unusual here, though, is the request for a list of any career agency employees or contractors who even worked on the issue. Indeed, it’s unclear why this would even be necessary. “It reads more like a subpoena than a request for information,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concern Scientists. “I’ve never seen transition teams asking for list of civil service employees.”
In a letter sent to Trump on Thursday, Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) warned that the new Trump administration would be violating the law if it used this information to retaliate against federal employees. "Civil servants should never be punished for having executed policies with which a new administration disagrees," Markey wrote. "That would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt, and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce."
Meanwhile, Teryn Norris, a former White House appointee to the Department of Energy under Obama, pointed to other questions in the memo that asked for the backgrounds and professional memberships of various staffers at the national laboratories. He called this “extremely concerning.”
6) The questions on lab researchers - outside positions, prof society memberships, publications, websites - are extremely concerning: pic.twitter.com/k13LxcKEyz— Teryn Norris (@TerynNorris) December 9, 2016
Now, it’s not at all certain what the Trump administration plans to do with any of this information. Possibly nothing. But given the attacks on mainstream climate science by both Trump and many of the members of his transition team, and given that congressional Republicans have called for changing civil service protections to make it easier to fire federal employees, this is understandably getting a lot of attention.
“The bigger thing here is the context,” Halpern says. “The Trump transition team is full of people who have a proven history of attacking climate scientists and undermining climate science research. Many of these people have long signaled a deep desire to dismantle federal climate science programs. So people are right to be suspicious when the transition team is making lists of people who have worked on climate change risk profiles.”
The Energy Department memo offers other new clues on Trump’s energy policies
Generally speaking, we already know Trump’s broad plans on energy and climate. You can read a list of administration priorities in this earlier leaked memo from Tom Pyle, the president of the oil-industry-funded American Energy Alliance who is leading Trump’s energy transition. The Trump administration plans to dismantle Obama’s climate policies like the Clean Power Plan, increase fossil-fuel leasing on federal lands, and expedite pipeline projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.
This latest questionnaire to the Energy Department, however, offers even more clues on the Trump administration’s priorities and interests. A few highlights:
1) Support for nuclear power: The Trump transition team seems very favorably inclined to nuclear power, for instance. Some of the questions in the memo seem to suggest that a Trump administration is concerned about the various nuclear reactors currently at risk of closing early due to competition with cheap natural gas. Here’s question #52:
How can the DOE support existing reactors to continue operating as part of the nation's infrastructure?
(Though, ironically enough, the way that states like New York and Illinois have recently kept their endangered nuclear reactors open is by giving them a financial credit for the low-carbon electricity they produce, using — you guessed it — a social cost of carbon estimate.)
And here’s question #55:
How best can DOE optimize its Advanced Reactor R&D activities to maximize their value proposition and work with investors to development and commercialize advanced reactors?
2) Questioning the nation’s energy data agency: Meanwhile, at least 15 of the questions concern the Energy Information Administration — an independent agency that provides detailed information on the nation’s energy system and offers projections on everything from oil production to gasoline demand to solar and wind construction.
The Trump transition team seems particularly concerned that the EIA’s projections are too friendly toward renewables and not friendly enough toward fossil fuels. (Actually, there’s a good case that the reverse is true, that the EIA has historically been too pessimistic about renewable growth.) For example, here’s question #13 in the memo:
There are studies that show that your high resource and technology case for oil and gas represents the shale gas and oil renaissance far better than your reference case. Why has EIA not put those assumptions in your reference case?
Outside energy experts, who rely on the EIA as a trusted and independent source of data, have worried about any possible political interference in the agency’s work. “You'd expect [questions] on routine matters of budget and org,” noted Sam Ori of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago on Twitter. “Not politically charged STEO methodology questions,” referring to EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook.
3) Scrutinizing clean-energy programs: The questionnaire also suggests that Trump’s team may be closely scrutinizing a host of Obama-era clean energy programs — including a $4.5 billion loan-guarantee program for electric vehicles and ARPA-e, which funds long-shot energy technologies like batteries, advanced wind turbines, and biofuels.
4) Getting ready for budget cuts: Finally, the questionnaire hints that sharp budget cuts may be on the way. Generally speaking, the Department of Energy spends about 40 percent of its budget maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons fleet, and about one-third on actual energy. Question #62 hints at budget cuts for the latter:
If DOE's topline budget in accounts other than the 050 [i.e., national security] account were required to be reduced 10% over the next four fiscal years (from the FY17 request and starting in FY18), does the Department have any recommendations as to where those reductions should be made?
— Some more coverage of this Energy Department questionnaire from Bloomberg (which broke the story) and the Washington Post, which quotes an agency official calling it unusually “intrusive.”
— The Energy Department isn’t the only place likely to face major change: Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is an ardent foe of virtually everything Obama’s EPA has done.
— If Trump wants to dismantle Obama’s climate policies, here are the obstacles he’ll face