Climate Change Conversations Are Targeted in Questionnaire to Energy Department

Source: By CORAL DAVENPORT, New York Times • Posted: Monday, December 12, 2016

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team has circulated an unusual 74-point questionnaire at the Department of Energy that requests the names of all employees and contractors who have attended climate change policy conferences, as well as emails and documents associated with the conferences.

In question after question, the document peppers Energy Department managers with pointed queries about climate science research, clean energy programs and the employees who work for those programs. More broadly, the questionnaire hints at a significant shift of emphasis at the agency toward nuclear power, and a push to commercialize the research of the Energy Department’s laboratories, long considered the crown jewels of federal science.

Energy Department employees, who shared the questionnaire with The New York Times and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, described the questionnaire as worrying. Mr. Trump has just tapped Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma and a climate change denialist, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and the president-elect has made it clear he intends to roll back eight years of regulatory efforts by President Obama that aimed to control planet-warming emissions.

The questionnaire “suggests the Trump administration plans a witch hunt for civil servants who’ve simply been doing their jobs,” Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said in a statement. “Democrats and Republicans alike should unite to condemn any action that intimidates, threatens or retaliates against civil servants for lawfully doing their jobs.”

Michael McKenna, a former Energy Department official in George W. Bush’s administration who initially led Mr. Trump’s Energy Department transition, saw nothing amiss.

“If meetings happened and important stuff was decided, voters have a right to know,” said Mr. McKenna, who stepped down after Mr. Trump banned working lobbyists from the transition. “It’s not a matter of national security. The transition is not asking about nuclear weapons. They are asking about meetings about modeling for God’s sake.”

The questionnaire requests “a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any Interagency Working Group meetings” to design a measurement known as the Social Cost of Carbon, a figure used by the Obama administration to measure the economic effects of carbon dioxide pollution, and to justify the economic cost of climate regulations. That question goes on to demand “a list of when those meetings were” as well as “emails associated with those meetings.”


Transition Questionnaire Raises Concerns

A questionnaire from President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team, obtained by The New York Times, asks Energy Department employees pointed questions not only about climate change policy but also about the size of the department and efforts to promote nuclear power, which the transition team seems to favor.

A separate question asks for “a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any” United Nations climate change conference “in the last five years.” Still another inquires about which office led the department’s efforts to complete the five-nation nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

Even the Energy Information Administration, the department’s independent statistics office, was not immune. The questionnaire demands justification for the office’s measurements of the nation’s carbon dioxide pollution.

“In the Annual Energy Outlook 2016, E.I.A. assumed that the Clean Power Plan should be in the reference case despite the fact that the reference case is based on existing laws and regulations,” the questionnaire reads. “Why did the E.I.A. make that assumption, which seems to be atypical of past forecasts?”

Several other questions focus on the national scientific laboratories, including queries on highest salaries, outside evaluation of research and commercialization programs for their research.

It is not clear whether similar questionnaires were circulated at other cabinet agencies, or whether the questionnaire was the product of a particularly zealous landing team at the Energy Department. Press officers at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, the main agencies responsible for implementing climate policy, said those agencies had not received questionnaires.

The Trump transition office did not respond to requests for comment.

But former Energy Department employees and presidential transition officials said that while it is normal for presidential transition teams to ask policy questions, it is highly unusual to send out questionnaires. The requests for lists of specific employees involved in shaping climate policy is irregular and alarming, they said, given that on the campaign trail Mr. Trump clearly showed his skepticism of climate change science and his hostility to climate change policy.

“A lot of these questions make perfect sense,” said Jonathan Levy, a former deputy chief of staff of the Energy Department in the Obama administration. “They have to get their heads around what responsibilities they will have and don’t have. The thing that’s unsettling are the questions that appear to be targeting personnel for doing public service.”

John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff who led Mr. Obama’s transition, wrote in an email, “To the best of my knowledge, no one in the ’08 transition asked questions about meeting attendance.”

Max Stier, an expert on presidential transitions and the president of Partnership for Public Service, a research organization, said: “The new president will come in with new policies that he’ll pursue, but that’s different from identifying civil servants who are responsible for following through on policies set by the previous political leadership. And they’re not going to be effective without working well with the career team.”

Mr. McKenna said Energy Department employees had nothing to fear. “The career staff at D.O.E. is great. There’s not a soul in the world who wants to do any harm to those guys.”

Beyond the targeted questions about climate change, the questionnaire also appears to offer a broad map of the Trump administration’s policy goals for the Energy Department.

Several questions signal an intent to downsize the department, including queries about existing vacancies and the number of assistant energy secretaries that are mandated by law. One question requests recommendations to implement a 10 percent budget reduction over the next four years.

The questionnaire also suggests a new emphasis on nuclear power, including queries about supporting the operation of existing nuclear reactors; preventing the premature closing of nuclear plants; increasing research and development of advanced nuclear reactors; and moving forward with plans to license nuclear waste disposal at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, which was shut down by the Obama administration.

One question touches on the department’s support for “offshore wind,” a particular interest for Mr. Trump, who is fighting wind turbines off the coast of one of his golf courses in Scotland.

The Energy Department’s national laboratories are largely focused on cutting-edge scientific research, but several questions seem to indicate an interest in pushing the research in a commercial direction, including a request to the labs for a list of licensing agreements and royalty proceeds over the last five years.

In the immediate post-Cold War years, the Clinton administration pushed the labs to partner with private companies on commercial research, but the Bush administration saw those efforts as government intervention in the free market. President-elect Trump has shown no concern for such intervention.