Trump Team Memo Hints at Big Shake-Up of U.S. Energy Policy

  • Advisers seeking to identify staff involved in climate policy
  • Document drills down into agency operations with 65 questions

High Energy: Trump Focuses on Nuclear Power

Advisers to President-elect Donald Trump are developing plans to reshape Energy Department programs, help keep aging nuclear plants online and identify staff who played a role in promoting President Barack Obama’s climate agenda.

The transition team has asked the agency to list employees and contractors who attended United Nations climate meetings, along with those who helped develop the Obama administration’s social cost of carbon metrics, used to estimate and justify the climate benefits of new rules. The advisers are also seeking information on agency loan programs, research activities and the basis for its statistics, according to a five-page internal document circulated by the Energy Department on Wednesday. The document lays out 65 questions from the Trump transition team, sources within the agency said.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to eliminate government waste, rescind "job-killing" regulations and cancel the Paris climate accord in which nearly 200 countries pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Trump, though, hasn’t detailed specific plans for federal agencies. The document obtained by Bloomberg offers clues on where his administration may be headed on energy policy, based on the nature of questions involving the agency’s research agenda, nuclear program and national labs.

In response to news of the document, Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, sent a letter to Trump warning that any punishment of agency workers carrying out policies his administration doesn’t agree with “would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt, and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce.”

Loans, Incubators

Under Obama, the department played a major role advancing clean-energy technology through loan guarantees and incubators, while writing efficiency rules for appliances. The department leans heavily on tens of thousands of contractors, who supplement the work of its roughly 13,000 direct employees.

Two Energy Department employees who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the questionnaire and said agency staff were unsettled by the Trump team’s information request.

“It’s certainly alarming that they would be targeting specific employees in this way,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Scientists are looking at this with some suspicion, because many of the people who have been chomping at the bit to dismantle federal climate change science programs are now deeply embedded in the transition.” That includes transition team advisers working to shape the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA, he said.

The S&P 500 Energy Sector Index meanwhile climbed 0.3 percent on Friday to the highest level since June 2015. Exelon Corp., the biggest nuclear power plant operator in the U.S., gained 2 percent to $34.88 at 3:41 p.m. in New York on news of the potential support for generators.

Tom Pyle, the head of Trump’s Energy Department landing team and president of the oil-industry-funded free-market advocacy group American Energy Alliance, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the memo. Media representatives for the Trump transition and an Energy Department spokesperson also didn’t respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.

A person close to the transition team confirmed the questions Thursday. The person, who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter, praised the caliber of the Energy Department staff and cast the transition team’s effort as designed to ensure transparency on the formation of existing, Obama-era policy.

Social Cost

The questions about the social cost of carbon dovetail with similar, so-far-unsuccessful requests from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have also sought information about the analysis underpinning that policy and the people who helped develop it.

The transition team questions includes perfunctory requests to identify current advisory committees, pending procurement decisions and positions subject to Senate confirmation — information critical to ensuring the agency’s functions before and after Trump is sworn in. 

The document also signals which of the department’s agencies could face the toughest scrutiny under the new administration. Among them: the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a 7-year-old unit that has been a critical instrument for the Obama administration to advance clean-energy technologies.

Since going into operation in 2009, ARPA-E, as it is known, has provided about $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects involving grid-scale batteries, power storage, biofuel production, wind turbines and other technology, according to a May report on the agency. Trump’s energy landing team is seeking “a complete list of ARPA-E’s projects” and wants information about the “Mission Innovation” and “Clean Energy Ministerial” efforts within the department.

Without Subsidy

The group also questions whether any technologies or products that have emerged from Energy Department programs “are currently offered in the market without any subsidy” and asks “what mechanisms exist to help the national laboratories commercialize their scientific and technological prowess.”

The Energy Information Administration, the department’s statistical arm, is the subject of at least 15 questions that probe its staffing, data and analytical decisions, including whether its forecasts underestimate future U.S. oil and gas production. EIA staff also are asked how they account for added costs to transmit and back-up renewable power.

The Trump transition advisers also want to know in what instances the EIA’s independence was most challenged over the past eight years.

While the request for information hints at areas the Trump administration will address in terms of energy, it doesn’t actually specify policy, and administration plans may be shaped in part by the Energy Department’s responses. 

Nuclear Plants

The document shows Trump advisers contemplating ways to keep aging U.S. nuclear power plants online, including by addressing concerns about the long-term storage of spent radioactive material. “How can the DOE support existing reactors to continue operating,” and “what can DOE do to help prevent premature closure of plants?” the transition team asks.

For more on Trump advisers’ questions about nuclear, click here.

Trump advisers have been weighing how to revive a long-stalled plan to stash radioactive waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. In the document, they ask if there are any statutory restrictions to restarting that project or reinvigorating an Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management that was responsible for disposing of spent nuclear material.

In the transition document, Trump advisers ask for "a full accounting" of DOE liabilities associated with DOE’s Loan Program Office, criticized by Republican leaders over its part in bankrolling Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt and left taxpayers on the hook for $535 million in federal guarantees. The documents seeks lists of outstanding loans, their terms and objectives, and the parties responsible for repaying them. 

In addition to Pyle, Trump’s Energy Department landing team includes national security lawyer David Jonas; Michigan Republican Party vice chair Kelly Mitchell; Jack Spencer, vice president of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at the conservative Heritage Foundation; Martin Dannenfelser Jr., previously with the Energy Innovation Reform Project; and Travis Fisher, with the Institute for Energy Research.

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