At DOE, Leaders Are Irrelevant

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., Oct. 25, 2010 – Over the years, presidents have appointed energy secretaries with a variety of backgrounds: policy wonk, business person, political apparatchik, former elected official, military officer, even dentist. None have exactly worked out. Scratch that. None have worked out at all.

The latest incarnation at the fortress-like Forrestal Building – the second ugliest building in Washington after the J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters – is the science guy.  He isn’t proving any better than his predecessors at wrapping arms around the unwieldy, largely incoherent bureaucratic behemoth. Steve Chu, physics Nobelist and former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is undeniably brilliant. The Obama administration sought to use Chu’s scientific sheen to divert attention from its inability to rapidly fix the BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. Chu got a lot of favorable press as a result.

But weighing in on the physics of a rampaging oil well isn’t the same as running a massive federal agency with a portfolio that says “energy” but really encompasses many things that are not and little that is. Managing nuclear weapons production and cleanup, running the nation’s largest non-biomedical federal R&D program, distributing economic stimulus money, and assembling and massaging what promises to be the world’s largest scientific information database have a peripheral relationship to the basic issues of energy supply and demand.

What can DOE do about the price of gasoline, electric blackouts, or nuclear meltdowns, the kind of things most Americans think of when contemplating the meaning of energy? Nothing.

The management team that Chu has been working with for the past year is now falling apart, according to a recent account in The Energy Daily. Three top officials — under secretary Kristina Johnson, a brainy engineer; nuclear energy chief Pete Miller; and fossil energy head Jim Markowsky — are all leaving DOE. Earlier this fall, Chu’s chief advisor on spending the agency’s $36 billion in stimulus cash, Matt Rogers, cashed out. You probably haven’t heard of any of these folks, but they played key roles in the agency.

There’s nothing unusual about political appointees jumping ship after a year or two on the Washington merry-go-round. But what’s unusual about the three DOE departures is how their leaving came to light. According to the newsletter, “None of the resignations was publicly announced by DOE.” Rather, the Energy Daily found out about the resignations through “internal memos recently sent by Chu to DOE staff.” That sounds to me like Chu isn’t captaining a very happy ship.

Also unusual is Chu’s plan to parcel out Johnson’s considerable tasks to Cathy Zoi, who is running the energy efficiency and renewable energy shop where a lot of the stimulus funds have found a home. Zoi, an Al Gore acolyte in the Clinton administration whose background is entirely in energy efficiency, will take up Johnson’s much broader job on an acting basis. The Energy Daily noted, “Zoi’s elevation is somewhat unusual in that in past administrations, the DOE deputy secretary—the agency’s No. 2 official—has typically stepped in on an acting basis for any departing under secretaries because of the broad management responsibilities held by the under secretary.” The newsletter also observed that Zoi’s new job represents “another top management change that was not publicly announced by DOE in any press release or Internet posting.”

Zoi has been controversial at DOE. The agency’s inspector general has reported that Zoi’s office has been lax in supervising the stimulus spending by state and local governments. The IG has also raised questions about possible contracting irregularities in Zoi’s program.

In short, the performance of the current crop of energy officials doesn’t look materially different than the various nonentities and clapped out political hacks who preceded them. Maybe it’s not the people who get charged with running the energy department who are at fault. I’d argue that it’s the structure. I don’t want to get branded as some sort of “tea party” type, but I thought from the start that creating DOE was a mistake. Dismantling it today, sending the agency’s programs back to whence they came, would be a good idea.

At the quarter pole – or the halfway point, depending on what happens in 2012 – it seems reasonable to take a look at just how the administration, and its henchfolk, are doing on their proclaimed energy agenda. They came into office with high energy hopes. They would slash greenhouse gases, unleash green technologies, create green jobs, revitalize nuclear power, and usher in a brave new world of abundant and renewable energy.

Didn’t happen. Today, two years into Obamaland, the energy landscape doesn’t look different than what was left behind by the feckless and reckless Bushies.

The intellectual underpinnings of the Energy Department are soft, a foundation built on notions of government power that just don’t match the reality of the world of energy. What happens in energy is far less a product of government actions, policies, and programs than of market forces and consumer choices. Each new administration comes into Washington believing that it can employ the power of the government to push energy markets in directions it believes are good for the country. Each administration leaves having failed, but refusing to acknowledge that the job was simply beyond their reach.