(John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his
* Table: tmsnrt.rs/2gMRW7e
* Chart 1: tmsnrt.rs/2gMVAxJ
* Chart 2: tmsnrt.rs/2hzZMNX
By John Kemp
LONDON, Dec 15 The U.S. Department of Energy has
become a lightning rod for criticism in parts of the Republican
Party and the fossil fuels industry unhappy about the Obama
administration's energy and climate policies.
Presidential candidate Rick Perry promised to abolish the
Department of Energy along with the Departments of Commerce and
Education during a debate in 2011.
Perry's views on the department's usefulness may evolve now
he has been selected to lead it in a future Trump administration
("Trump picks climate sceptic Perry for top U.S. energy job",
Reuters, Dec. 14 ).
But Trump's transition team has been waging its own war
against the department sending it a detailed 74-item
questionnaire about climate policies, forecasting and the work
of career civil servants and officials.
Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate
Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has described the
questionnaire as disconcerting and troubling.
Cantwell warned the transition team "may be preparing to
take arbitrary action against civil servants and government
contractors" for doing their jobs and implementing the policies
of the Obama administration.
"The questions even challenge the independent data analysis
functions performed by the Energy Information Administration,"
she wrote in a letter to the outgoing secretary of energy.
The transition team has subsequently said in a statement the
memo was not authorised as part of its standard protocol and the
author has been properly counselled ("Trump transition backs
away from controversial questionnaire", ABC News, Dec. 14).
But while the incoming administration may have backed away
from the questionnaire, the scepticism and hostility to the
Department of Energy and its mission in some quarters remains
Much of the criticism is based on a misunderstanding about
what the department actually does and the policies for which it
The Department of Energy was created in 1977 so it tends to
be associated with the Carter administration and the era of big
government and price control, which is reason enough for some to
But the Department of Energy Organization Act (Public Law
95-91) received bipartisan support and was passed by lopsided
majorities in both the House of Representatives (353-57) and the
The Department consolidated a number of existing agencies
rather than created a wholly new set of administrative
structures ("Institutional origins of the Department of Energy",
Programs and agencies transferred to the Department included
the nuclear weapons programmes of the Atomic Energy Commission;
the power reactor programmes of the U.S. Navy; the power
marketing administrations of the Department of the Interior;
building energy efficiency from the Department of Housing and
Urban Development; and the electricity and gas regulatory
programmes of the Federal Power Commission.
The sudden emergence of widespread shortages of coal, gas,
oil and electricity in the late 1960s and early 1970s prompted
legislators to demand a more joined up approach ("Energy policy
in America since 1945", Vietor, 1984).
Lawmakers and the media demanded to know why the energy
crisis had caught the United States by surprise, amid widespread
suspicions energy companies were deliberately creating shortages
to raise prices.
The lack of reliable and credible statistics on energy
reserves, production and consumption prompted Congress to create
an Energy Information Administration (EIA) to provide
independent statistics and forecasts.
The EIA administrator was granted broad powers to demand
data and documents from energy producers and consumers and given
statutory independence from the rest of the department and the
"The Administrator shall not be required to obtain the
approval of any other officer or employee of the Department in
connection with the collection or analysis of any information",
according to the law (Section 205(d)).
"Nor shall the Administrator be required, prior to
publication, to obtain the approval of any other officer or
employee of the United States with respect to the substance of
any statistical or forecasting technical reports".
The Department of Energy is one of the smallest
cabinet-level agencies in the federal government in terms of
In fiscal 2015, the department spent $25.4 billion, which
amounted to less than 0.7 percent of the $3,688 billion spent by
all government agencies.
Department of Energy spending was dwarfed by Health and
Human Services ($1,028 billion), Social Security ($944 billion),
the Department of Defense ($562 billion) and the Treasury ($486
It was also smaller than other programmatic agencies
including Veterans Affairs ($159 billion), Agriculture ($139
billion), Education ($90 billion), Transportation ($75 billion)
Labor ($45 billion), Homeland Security ($43 billion), Housing
and Urban Development ($36 billion), Justice ($27 billion) and
State ($26 billion).
The only cabinet-level agencies with smaller budgets than
DOE were Interior ($12 billion), Commerce ($9 billion) and the
Environmental Protection Agency ($7 billion).
Department spending has been broadly flat in real terms
since the early 1980s, with the exception of a short-lived
increase between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2012 thanks to the
post-crisis stimulus (tmsnrt.rs/2gMVAxJ).
Department expenditure as a proportion of all government
spending has declined since the 1970s and 1980s and been
basically flat at around 0.7 percent of all outlays for the last
Much of the criticism directed at the Department centres on
its funding for energy research and development on fossil fuels
But most Department spending is related to nuclear weapons,
power reactors used in navy submarines and aircraft carriers,
and clean up of past nuclear activities.
Congress appropriated $27.4 billion from the Treasury for
expenditure by the Department of Energy in fiscal 2015 ("Budget
of the United States Government Fiscal 2017", Office of
Management and Budget, 2016).
Appropriations for "atomic energy defense activities"
accounted for $17.1 billion, or nearly two-thirds of the total.
Congress appropriated $8.2 billion for weapons activities,
$1.6 billion for non-proliferation programmes and $1.2 billion
for naval reactors ("Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Justification",
Congress also appropriated almost $5 billion to clean up
sites contaminated during the Manhattan Project and Cold War
atomic weapons research and manufacturing programmes.
None of this atomic-related spending is controversial. So
the political disagreements centre on the $10 billion per year
the department spends on other energy programmes.
Of that sub-total, the Department spends $5 billion per year
on science including advanced computing ($540 million), basic
energy research ($1.7 billion), high energy physics ($766
million) and nuclear physics ($596 million).
The politically contentious Advanced Research Projects
Agency-Energy (APRA-E) received an appropriation of just $280
million in fiscal 2015.
Most of the controversy centres on the fossil energy,
renewables, and energy conservation programmes and other small
items which amounted to around $5 billion in total.
The contentious elements of Department spending amount to
less than 0.2 percent of all money spent by the federal
Even that overstates the controversy because many
programmes, including electric reliability, are not seriously
The Energy Information Administration received funding of
just $117 million in fiscal 2015.
DOE and EIA forecasts and long-term projections are
routinely criticised from all sides within the energy industry,
mostly for partisan and lobbying reasons.
Fossil fuel producers claim they overstate the potential
growth of renewables and understate the future role of oil and
Clean energy advocates make the opposite criticism, claiming
DOE/EIA are too optimistic about oil and gas and do not
appreciate the transformational potential of wind, solar and
other new technologies.
In reality, these are disputes about policy preferences and
assumptions dressed up as technical disputes about data and
Long-range energy forecasts have always been controversial
and subject to tremendous uncertainty and large errors.
Energy forecasts are both complex (in the sense they have a
large number of highly dynamic elements) and controversial (in
the sense they can be used to justify particularly policy
"Disagreement over estimates is not the cause but the
consequence of disagreement over basic policy perspective" ("The
politics of mistrust: estimating American oil and gas
resources", Wildavsky and Tenenbaum, 1981).
The fact that DOE/EIA is equally criticised by fossil fuel
and clean energy advocates suggests the agency is trying hard to
discharge its statutory mandate to be neutral.
(Editing by David Evans)