By Kennedy Maize
Washington, D.C., April 11, 2011 – Now that the children of all ages have stopped holding their breath until the government turns blue, we can get back to more important subjects, such as what the federal government should look like, how it should relate to the states, how much should it spend, and where. These, of course, are themes that run through the entire history of our nation and our government.
I must confess that only one thing really troubled me during the debate about “shutting down” the government. That was a small detail: it would not have shut down the U.S. Department of Energy. DOE had enough “no year” money to keep going for a while. Darn! Spoiled the whole adventure.
What the heck, it gives me a chance to resurrect my occasional rant about why we don’t need an energy department, and would be better without it. I know full well that this is futile windmill tilting, but it at least gets the subject out in the public from time to time. So, Sancho, let’s go again, starting with a little history.
Creating the Department of Energy in 1977 was a bad idea to begin with, part of the hangover from the World War II Manhattan Project, which built the bombs that brought Japan to its knees. The success of the Manhattan Project led to a belief that big, government-funded and government-managed, science can solve all or most of society’s problems. The Manhattan Project begat the Atomic Energy Commission, which in turn begat the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Administration. ERDA was transmogrified into the core of DOE in 1977. Ironically, the next-to-last AEC chairman, Jim Schlesinger, was also the first secretary of energy (and a leading figure in the Carter administration in creating the bureaucratic Frankenstein).
The concept of a central federal energy agency got traction in the Nixon administration during the first Arab oil crisis. Nixon established a federal energy office and it became the Federal Energy Administration in 1974. Unlike Nixon’s energy office in the White House, the FEA was established by law. I was working at the National Institutes of Health when the FEA was created. We, as was the case with most other federal agencies, were asked to come up with a number of people to shift over to the new energy administration. We welcomed that opportunity, viewing the FEA as a new federal turkey farm where we could unload all of our turkeys. And we did. We sent our tired, our poor, our muddled asses as pilgrims to the new agency.
Jimmy Carter in his 1976 campaign (and Nixon and Ford before him) complained that the U.S. was not enough like Europe when it came to responding to the world’s changing energy landscape. When the Euros held an energy meeting, usually at some hell hole like Geneva or Vienna, they sent “energy ministers.” We didn’t have an energy minister, just a bunch of rubes who didn’t even speak French. So Congress is its infinite wisdom, anxious to do anything that looked like it was responding to high gasoline prices, passed the law creating the U.S. Department of Energy, which went into business on October 2, 1977.
DOE was made up of a conglomeration of used and useless parts, cobbled together and given a fancy home in the Forrestal Building on one of Washington’s signature boulevards, Independence Avenue. Bits and pieces from the National Science Foundation, the Interior Department (including the research program of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which employed my father for over 30 years), the Federal Power Commission, and so forth were tacked onto the ERDA bureaucratic bulletin board.
And how has that worked out? DOE, I would argue, has been, by turns, irrelevant and an impediment. In the early years, a lot of DOE effort went into regulation, attempting to keep those nasty oil companies from making money by selling gasoline to Americans. That’s where Hazel Rollins (she wasn’t an O’Leary then) got her introduction to energy, which she later parlayed into a job as energy secretary in the Clinton administration. Remember “windfall profits?” That was part of DOE’s responsibilities. In the late 1970s, the summer softball team made up of oil industry lobbyists called itself, aptly, the “Obscene Prophets.” All that fuss and muss, of course, had no appreciable effect on gasoline prices. Nor did the Nixon administration’s heedless pursuit of nuclear power plants on every street corner. It turned out, to the surprise of many in Washington, that cars did not run on electricity.
During the Reagan years, the attention of DOE shifted to making more and better bombs, warheads, and weapons of mass destruction. I got a former boss into big trouble during this period when I wrote in the Energy Daily that DOE would be better named “the U.S. Department of Nuclear Warheads.” Former energy secretary Don Hodel (a very nice man, most of the time) woke up my boss in the middle of the night in a fancy hotel in Riyadh to give him a tongue lashing. Never mind.
DOE in the Clinton years had no real focus. It was a pudding without a theme, focused on pushing a lot of money out of the door, largely unsupervised, through a thoroughly dubious device known as a CRADA, or “cooperative research and development agreement.” This is another way of saying “blank check.” During Bush II, it was more of the same, with even less focus. Both administrations spent a lot of time and money cleaning up the weapons mess left from the Manhattan Project and the subsequent bomb-building binges. that work continues, apparently endlessly.
Has anything DOE has done over the years had a fundamental impact on today’s energy world? I don’t believe so and I’ll challenge you, my reader, to come up with some examples of game changers that resulted from DOE as either regulator or engine of innovation. Remember the “clean coal technology” program and the certain arrival of coal gasification and combined-cycle generation? Fizzle. Breeder reactors? Where? Fusion? Forgetaboutit.
Then there was DOE’s role in the shale gas revolution. The agency wasn’t even backstage. It wasn’t in the same city or the same state. It was AWOL.
Finally, how about those gasoline prices?