The Department of Energy is Failing to Do Its Job

Elections have consequences, and therefore a new administration can change the priorities of a federal agency such as the Department of Energy as they want, right?

Wrong.

The Department of Energy (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. DOE was established by Public Law 95-91 in 1977 to do specified things with congressionally mandated goals and priorities. The Rick Perry DOE is undercutting all of those goals and priorities. This blog focuses on a few of the most serious failures to follow the law.

First, when Mr. Perry has said that his proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget “delivers on the promise to re-prioritize spending in order to carry out DOE’s core functions,” he is either misstating or unaware of DOE’s core functions, and what promises he is legally permitted to deliver. In fact, his proposed budget cuts funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by a staggering 70%.

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.

DOE’s core functions, as defined by statute, include these priorities (listed in the order presented in the law—with priorities outside the scope of this blog skipped over):

  • First on the law’s list—“to achieve…effective management of energy functions of the Federal Government…and observe policies consistent with a coordinated energy policy, and to promote maximum possible energy conservation measures (emphasis added)…”
  • Third on the list—“to create and implement a comprehensive energy conservation strategy that will receive the highest priority (emphasis added) in the national energy program;”
  • Fourth on the list—“to carry out…energy research and development…including… undertaking programs for optimal development of the various forms of energy production, and conservation; ” (emphasis added)
  • Fifth on the list—“to place major emphasis on…renewable energy resources;”
  • Eighth on the list—“to promote the interests of consumers…”
  • Twelfth on the list—“to assure incorporation of national environmental protection goals…and to advance the goals of restoring, protecting, and enhancing environmental quality, and assuring public health and safety.

A budget proposal that reduces expenditures for the office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy may reflect the Trump administration’s apparent priorities to improve the short-term financial strength of the fossil fuels industry that funds their campaign—at the expense of consumers who pay for their own energy use—but it is not what DOE was established to do.

This isn’t just about budget–the Perry DOE’s refusal to finalize energy efficiency standards that will avoid 20 million metric tons of carbon pollution while saving consumers $8 billion not only is in violation of the appliance efficiency laws but also undermines DOE’s core mission.

In fact it is worse than this: standards up for reconsideration during the next eight or so years could save 3.5 billion tonnes of carbon emissions and  $1.1 trillion in utility bills cumulatively though 2050. It ought to be a top DOE priority to do so, according to the law. Will Perry and his agency be up to the job?


Sign in front of the United States Department of Energy Forrestal Building in Washington D.C.

(The sign in front of DOE’s Washington, D.C. headquarters reflects an environmentally-friendly image, presumably to reflect its environmental protection responsibilities. Will DOE live up to them?)

A growing number of states pursue clean energy development, including requirements for both energy efficiency in products and buildings and minimum levels of renewable energy and energy efficiency acquisition by utilities. Such states include both blue states and red states. But these standards for clean energy acquisition by utilities have been threatened by the Administration with federal pre-emption.  

What does the law require of DOE in such cases?

“Section 103. Whenever any proposed action by the Department conflicts with the energy plan of any State, the Department shall give due consideration to the needs of such State, and where practicable, shall attempt to resolve such conflict through consultations with appropriate state officials.”

California has supported the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming and has the most comprehensive and ambitious program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in North America, if not the world. Other states also have similar commitments and programs. A key component of several state programs is efficiency standards for energy-using equipment such as air conditioners. But DOE inaction on improving existing standards will pre-empt California and other states from pursuing stronger policies on their own. This is a clear conflict between DOE policy and the needs of the states.

Where is the due consideration? When will DOE offer to consult with the responsible state agencies–the Air Resources Board or the California Energy Commission?

Rick Perry is not the first Secretary of Energy who apparently doesn’t understand or is unaware of DOE’s role as prescribed by law. In this observer’s experience, all of the DOE secretaries until Steven Chu (confirmed in 2009) failed similarly. But in this case, the consequences are more dire in terms of climate and in terms of America’s economic leadership in clean energy. The whole world is moving towards clean energy technology with investments approaching $1 trillion a year. If the U.S. tosses away its leadership in this area, we will soon find ourselves buying clean energy technologies from abroad, and losing many of the jobs to China and Europe.

Here’s an example of someone who did understand what the law required him to do. Charles Imbrecht, a Republican who supported clean energy and ran his agency with great professionalism, was one of the most effective chairs of the California Energy Commission. When a spokesman for an appliance company that opposed efficiency standards that the Commission was considering berated the Commission for proposing (later adopting) regulations on his company’s products, he argued against efficiency standards broadly. Chairman Imbrecht rebuked him by saying, “You’ve come to the wrong place to complain. The Commission is required by law to adopt appliance efficiency standards that are feasible and justified. My job at the Energy Commission is to implement the law.”

The point is 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.

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