In one of his last days on the job, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on January 11 spoke about the important work being done at DOE’s 17 laboratories, allowing the lab scientists to pursue their work without political interference and positioning the U.S. to be an innovator in clean energy technologies.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Moniz announced the release of a DOE report on the national labs that highlights the labs’ accomplishments and an improved relationship between the labs and DOE. The trust between DOE officials in Washington and the labs spread out around the country “had somewhat weakened over time,” and Moniz established both a policy council and operations board to help revitalize that trust, he said.
The report addresses some of the improvements made in recent years in DOE’s management and coordination with the labs, provides a good baseline for subsequent steps in that area and offers help for the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump on the value of the labs, Moniz said.
Moniz commented that he has spoken with Trump’s nominee to be DOE secretary, former Texas governor Rick Perry, and that Perry “wants to get on top of things” to lead DOE. Perry, who called for the elimination of DOE as a presidential candidate in 2011, and the Trump transition team are looking to put together a leadership team at DOE to carry out its missions, Moniz shared.
The report on the labs was completed in response to the recommendations from Congress that DOE should do a better job communicating the value that the labs provide to the nation, Moniz noted. The Congressionally mandated Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories prompted the report, he said.
The report provides a roadmap for continued support of American leadership in science and technology, said Moniz, who joked that Congress may have envisioned a 20-page report but DOE produced a 212-page document. Besides touting the value of the labs, the report refers to how the government can ensure fact-based input to guide policy positions, he said.
Moniz was a physicist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and DOE employee before being tapped by President Barack Obama to lead DOE in 2013, and his conviction on the value of research and development was evident in the remarks.
Scientific Integrity Policy. He mentioned a revised DOE policy on scientific integrity so that DOE lab workers, who are contractors and not federal employees, can pursue their work without interference from Washington.
DOE lab employees should be allowed to express their fact-based opinions, Moniz said. “DOE officials should not and will not ask scientists to tailor their work to any particular conclusion. Certainly, as a scientist myself I understand the importance of independence and integrity in the scientific method,” he said. That scientific integrity will enable data and analysis to inform DOE program and policy judgments.
The policy will allow the roughly 32,000 scientists to do their work in the labs and recruit new, younger people who want to come into an open and vibrant scientific community.
Moniz recalled being present among U.S. policymakers negotiating the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, with DOE lab employees feeding them information based on facts and not speculation. Reaching that agreement required a blend of science and diplomacy. While some members of Congress voted against the agreement in 2015, those same members have said it is working and should not be abandoned, Moniz asserted.
In response to a question about DOE accomplishments perhaps being dismantled by the Trump administration, Moniz commented that any new secretary can have their own priorities.
However, “if you want to institutionalize something,” the best way to do that is not to issue a memo but have the program succeed, he said. When the new administration sees the successes of the labs and the work being done, they will see the value the labs bring to the nation and support that work, he asserted.
Questionnaire Prompted Fear. He was also asked about a questionnaire that was sent from the Trump transition team to DOE employees inquiring about work on climate change issues, which prompted fear among DOE staff that they could be penalized for such work under the new administration. The Trump transition team has since indicated that the questionnaire was not authorized by the transition team.
Moniz acknowledged that the questionnaire sparked some fear among DOE staff, and he said the decision not to answer it was the right thing to do and should be viewed as a favor to the Trump administration. With only about 100 political appointees and 14,000 government staffers, DOE leaders need to have the backing and support of those staffers to accomplish their goals.
“You’re not going to get the work done if you don’t have them helping you row in the same direction,” he said. “So I think calming that down, getting that issue off the table, was absolutely the right thing to do, first of all, in consideration of those people, but also in consideration of the next secretary.”
Moniz generally declined to speculate on what the Trump administration may do at DOE, but he emphasized the value of research and development, clean energy technologies and positioning the U.S. to be a leader in innovation to address climate change. He said he is convinced that the world is heading toward a low-carbon economy and that any U.S. retreat from the Paris climate accord struck in 2015 would be a mistake.
Pointing to International Energy Agency estimates of a $60-trillion market to meet the goals of the Paris deal by 2030, Moniz said it would be “an unfortunate irony” if other countries stoke investment in that market and the U.S. does nothing. That “doesn’t sound like a very good competitive strategy,” he said.
Advancing clean energy technologies and lowering the cost of those technologies is a core responsibility at DOE, Moniz added. “The innovation agenda has bipartisan support” among lawmakers, he said.
DOE can help the private sector work on technologies to address climate change challenges, but “if we don’t do it now, we won’t get there in 30 years.”
Jobs Report to be released. Offering a preview of a jobs report that DOE will release associated with energy technologies, Moniz said that among the millions of private sector jobs created during the eight years of the Obama administration, 14% were related to energy.
Moniz touched on the challenges of nuclear generation in the current power market where low fossil fuel prices make it difficult for nuclear plants to compete with natural gas-fired generators. That dynamic has prompted a few early retirements of nuclear power plants and the issue will be sustaining the existing plants in service, he said.
The development of small modular reactors with generation capacity between 50 MW and 200 MW may be “a game changer,” but that is several years away, Moniz said. In its new Quadrennial Energy Review, DOE recommended extending a tax credit for nuclear plants that is set to expire in 2021 to provide time for small modular reactors to be developed and begin service, he pointed out.
The big question facing the nuclear power sector is whether licenses for existing plants can be extended for another 20 years, with a wave of retirements expected to hit between 2030 and 2045, Moniz said.
Moniz also released a Cabinet Exit Memo on January 5, highlighting DOE’s work and accomplishments under the Obama administration. The memo addresses the administration’s pursuit of an “all of the above” energy strategy, a commitment to nuclear security, major scientific and technology discoveries and a dramatic growth in clean energy jobs.
When Obama took office in 2008, the U.S. had 1.2 GW of solar energy and 25 GW of wind energy installed, and current figures are 31 GW of solar energy and 75 GW of wind energy, the memo said.
U.S. dependence on foreign oil was at nearly 60% in 2008, and today it is about 25%, according to the memo.
By Tom Tiernan TTiernan@fosterreport.com
This article appears as published in The Foster Report No. 3130, issued January 13, 2017
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