Donald Trump’s transition team wants the Energy Department to provide the names of any employees who have worked on President Barack Obama’s climate initiatives — a request that has current and former staffers fearing an oncoming “witch hunt.”
The president-elect’s team sought the information as part of a 74-point questionnaire that also asked for details about how DOE’s statistical arm, the Energy Information Administration, does the math on issues such as the cost-effectiveness of wind and solar power versus fossil fuels. POLITICO obtained the document Friday, after Trump’s advisers sent it to the department earlier in the week.
The questions are just the latest sign that Trump is feeling out ways to undo Obama’s environmental agenda, in which DOE has played a major role through actions such as issuing billions of dollars in loan guarantees to green-energy projects backed by companies such as Google and Tesla. Trump has derided the idea of man-made climate change as a “hoax,” and he’s announced plans to nominate one of the biggest critics of Obama’s regulations — Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt — to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Coupled with calls by congressional Republicans to relax civil-service protections so that it’s easier to fire federal employees, the transition team’s demand that the Energy Department name names has some current and former workers fearing the worst.
“Sounds like a freaking witch hunt,” one former DOE staffer wrote in an email.
“It is a remarkably aggressive and antagonistic tone to take with an agency that you’re about to try to manage,” a current agency employee said. Another DOE staffer expressed the view that “some [of the questions] are harassment, some are naive, some are legitimate.”
“Why is that important for informing the transition team?” the person said of the list of people who worked on climate issues.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, denounced the questions as “environmental McCarthyism,” calling them “a witch hunt and a loyalty test all rolled into one.”
“The transition team should reconsider these apparent attempts to intimidate Energy Department employees who were simply working to fulfill the climate objectives of the Obama administration,” he wrote.
Trump transition officials declined to comment, as did the Energy Department.
Of the 74 questions posed by Trump’s advisers, two called for identifying the employees and contractors who worked on implementing the Obama administration’s efforts to study and address climate change.
One question asks for the names of staffers who attended any United Nations climate change conferences in the past five years. Another requests the names of the personnel on any of the interagency working groups that calculated the “social cost of carbon,” a financial measurement of the damage imposed by climate change that the administration uses to help weigh the costs and benefits of some regulations.
Still, one DOE staff member suggested the worries might be overblown, saying Trump’s team has carried out a “very good transition” overall. But the person acknowledged that “those two or three questions where they asked for names is what caught people’s attention.”
Without knowing who the next energy secretary will be, people at the agency don’t know how high a priority those questions really are, the staff member said. “People read a lot into these things. It could be nothing.”
Trump has not yet announced a nominee to replace Ernest Moniz as the head of the department, which manages the nation’s nuclear arsenal, runs the network of national laboratories, funds basic science and oversees a strategic reserve of oil, but sources have said the leading candidates appear to be former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Ray Washburne, a member of Trump’s finance team.
Besides requesting specific names, Trump’s transition team directed a series of questions at the department’s Energy Information Administration, including some that appeared to challenge the agency’s ability to keep political bias out of its statistical analysis during Obama’s presidency.
“How has EIA ensured its independence in your data and analysis over the past 8 years?” one question asks, while requesting examples of instances where “EIA’s independence was most challenged.”
Other questions pressed EIA on why it had made certain assumptions about the costs of renewable energy, as well as whether its forecasts had given short shrift to “the shale gas and oil renaissance.”
The Trump team also raised other questions around DOE’s climate-related work. “Which programs within DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan?” reads Question 29.
In fact, half of Obama’s targets for greenhouse gas reductions are tied to DOE’s rules-making on efficiency standards for appliances like water heaters and air conditioners.
Having been on the receiving end of investigations into science, Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann — himself a frequent target of attacks from climate skeptics — said he found some of the questions worrying.
“Normally I would … withhold judgment, supposing for the time-being that this could just be legitimate information-gathering. However, this latest revelation hardly exists in a vacuum,” he wrote in an email, referring to the role of prominent climate skeptics on Trump’s EPA transition team.
“[I]n my mind it raises real concerns that this transition team is planning to target people, including scientists,” Mann said.
Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the questionnaire “reads more like a subpoena than a request for assistance.” To Halpern, a question on the list asking DOE’s national labs about their websites raised an eyebrow.
“During the Bush administration, there were a lot of webpages that either disappeared or were altered to put nonscientific information on them,” he said. Nevertheless, Halpern said, “We elected a president and not a dictator. He can’t just come and destroy entire departments by executive fiat.”
The questionnaire also asks the agency to identify which of its offices “owns” the work on international Clean Energy Ministerials, a program that helps connect the public and private sectors across several governments, and Mission Innovation, a multinational effort to develop clean technology.
One question, directed to the office of DOE’s undersecretary for science and energy, probes the agency about where it could cut if it had to reduce its budget by 10 percent starting in fiscal 2018.
The questionnaire appears to have circulated through DOE after the agency’s transition coordinator, a career employee, sent it by email on Tuesday. The document also indicates that the agency can provide only information that is publicly available.
“Since the review team wants answers quickly, please send us answers to individual questions as you complete them,” Ingrid Kolb, director of DOE’s Office of Management, wrote in an email that was read to POLITICO. “Please do not wait to finish all of them.”
She added: “We need to start feeding the agency review team answers ASAP. If you are concerned about a question, please contact me immediately. In some instances the answer to a question may involve information that is not available to the public or is information that we do not have.”
Kolb has managed the last two transitions for DOE and has worked in the federal government for 37 years.
Bloomberg first reported on the questionnaire but did not release a copy of the document.
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