Amid all the cacophony of President Donald Trump's first two months in office, it can be hard to parse what changes at the Department of Energy fall within the range of normalcy for a new administration — and which do not.
Well, sure, that recently appointed massage therapist from New Hampshire who tweeted about exterminating Muslims proved deviant enough to be relieved of duty. And the political aides assigned to monitor each of the cabinet secretaries for the White House have raised some eyebrows, according to The Washington Post. More generally speaking, though, it's customary for an incoming president to switch things up and appoint supporters to take the cabinet departments in new directions.
The investigative team at ProPublica shed some light on this transition by digging up a list of “beachhead” appointments whom the White House has installed at the departments to get things off the ground while the permanent leadership teams materialize. GTM analyzed the new recruits installed at the DOE to see what perspectives they are bringing to the table.
This is not a complete list of everyone new at the department — the DOE declined to comment on specific personnel matters — but from the information available, a few trends emerged.
Of the 28 hires listed by ProPublica, 10 have discernable energy experience. Some worked as energy staffers on the Hill, some worked in the George W. Bush DOE and at least one spent some time at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Most of the appointees with energy experience worked as lawyers, advocates or spokespeople for coal, oil or gas companies.
Of the new energy staffers who have not worked in energy-related fields, many served the Trump campaign as state-level coordinators. Several had served Gov. Rick Perry in some capacity before he assumed leadership of the department. One used to work for Sen. Jeff Sessions, the early Trump backer and current attorney general.
Then there are the wild cards, like Kyle Yunaska, a tax analyst at Georgetown University whose primary connection to the administration appears to be his status as the brother-in-law of Eric Trump, the president's son.
Here's a breakdown of the new recruits and the perspectives and experience they're bringing to DOE.
The campaign operatives
Every new administration brings in its own political appointees. It's a natural reward for hard work on an election that paid off.
It's not surprising, then, to see eight of the new staffers come from roles in the Trump campaign. The beachhead team includes operatives from Ohio, Illinois, Texas and North Carolina. A few others advised Gov. Rick Perry and Ben Carson in their respective presidential bids.
For instance, Justin Bis served as deputy state director of the Ohio GOP during the election cycle, with previous experience at the Michigan Republican Party. Brett Fetterly is coming from a foreign policy position at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies; he also advised Gov. Rick Perry's 2016 presidential campaign on foreign and security policy. ProPublica lists their titles, and those of most of the beachhead hires, as “assistant to the secretary.”
Higher up in the campaign hierarchy, Wells Griffith, battleground states director for the Trump campaign, will take on the role of “senior White House advisor.” Then there's White House Liaison Joseph Uddo, who made headlines in April for his brusque approach to packing some Trump supporters into Delaware's GOP delegation.
These and the other campaign vets will now apply their political experience to the day-to-day operations of the department.
The industry insiders
Of the 10 beachhead hires with a readily apparent background in energy, at least six have professionally represented or advocated for fossil fuel companies.
Incoming Executive Advisor G. Michael Brown describes his experience in his LinkedIn summary: as manager for market development and government relations in Texas for Chesapeake Energy, “he handled state-specific issues, advocated for increased demand for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles and managed a nationwide public speaking and advocacy portfolio within the oil and gas sector.” Attorney Joshua Campbell brings “11 years of oil & gas industry experience.”
Suzanne Jaworowski served as director of communications at Sunrise Coal, a company active in the Illinois basin that bills itself as the second-largest coal producer in Indiana. Doug Matheney ran the Ohio operation of the Count on Coal campaign, which attacked the Clean Power Plan and other regulations that would make it harder to burn coal for electricity.
Resumes like that are sure to make clean energy advocates anxious, but they also denote an understanding of different aspects of the American energy system.
“The people who represent these industries are the people who know these industries the best, whether they’re renewables or whether they’re coal,” said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell’s policy resolution group, which represents energy companies across the fossil fuel, renewables and utility sectors.
“This administration is going to have a different focus than the previous administration,” he added. “They don't like renewables as much as the previous administration.”
The Obama administration wanted to support the growth of renewables, and brought people to DOE with experience in that industry. Trump has long made clear a preference for bolstering domestic coal and gas production, so it's not surprising he would turn to people who have advocated for those industries. The question now is how the fossil fuel professionals will use their positions within DOE to influence the nation's energy mix.
Not your typical GOP DOE
Fossil fuels still produce two-thirds of the electricity made in the U.S., so those industries remain relevant to energy policymaking. Renewables advocates, though, are concerned that new arrivals might disadvantage the up-and-coming clean energy technologies in favor of incumbent coal, gas and oil.
Scott Sklar has worked for clean energy in Washington for decades, including 15 years at the helm of the Solar Energy Industries Association. He's seen Republican administrations bring in their people to the DOE's renewables offices, and said progress on clean technologies had come out of that process in the past.
“In the two different Bush administrations, many of the people in it from the traditional industries held a very open mind on allowing, in principle, new technologies in the marketplace — that at least you should not put in artificial barriers,” Sklar said. “In this administration, because they're picking a set of players who have been ideologically opposed to opening markets for new technologies and have been actively involved in trying to close off the new technologies, we don't expect that more dispassionate scenario to play out.”
Sklar was referring to a number of Trump appointees with ties to Koch Industries, the massive oil and gas conglomerate whose owners have sponsored well-documented efforts to forestall the growth of renewable energy and electric cars at the state and national levels.
Trump tapped a former Koch lobbyist, Thomas Pyle, to run the energy transition team. Among the beachhead hires, there's an indirect monetary connection. Travis Fisher and Daniel Simmons worked in policy roles at the Institute for Energy Research, a D.C. nonprofit that produces research critical of clean energy subsidies. Official filings show that Charles Koch was on the board of directors of IER's predecessor, and Politico reported that the Kochs help fund IER.
Trump in energy speeches has cited IER research that predicts big economic benefits from increased fossil fuel drilling on public lands. That indicates the organization had some sway in his energy thinking even before some of its members joined his DOE, or at least that its findings fit a narrative he wished to broadcast.
Now the administration is hiring people for the DOE whose experience makes them well suited to carry out that vision of expanded extraction of domestic fuels.
Unlike the emerging fields of clean energy, where DOE labs and basic research grants have helped new technologies get to market, oil, gas and coal companies have been operating at scale for decades, and tend to cite government regulations rather than the vagaries of cutting-edge technology transfer as the key obstacle to their growth.
What service, exactly, can Trump's DOE provide to expand extraction of conventional fuels?
There is an Office of Fossil Energy which guides research into “clean coal,” carbon capture and storage and unconventional oil and gas recovery. Beachhead hire Mark Maddox was an acting assistant secretary there for the George W. Bush administration. But we haven't heard much talk lately about utilizing that unit, and the president's skinny budget includes fossil energy among the DOE programs slated for budget cuts (coal companies have asked that it be spared).
A less active DOE might not hurt conventional fuels, but it certainly would put a damper on the innovation that has helped reduce the costs of renewable energy and expand its deployment in recent years. That could eventually decrease the rate at which renewables eat into conventional fuels' market share.
Brash and unqualified hires, like the quickly-fired massage therapist, aren't the most pressing threat to renewables, said Minh Le, who ran the SunShot program at DOE and worked in President Barack Obama's Office of Management and Budget.
“The greater concern comes from professional energy-sector appointees with immutable ideological beliefs about climate change and who know how to get things done, rather than from former campaign staffers with little or no relevant energy sector background and whose only qualification was supporting the president in the campaign.”
As the beachhead hires settle into their new roles, it will become clearer whether they have a positive strategy to enact for boosting American fuel production, or whether stripping away help for advanced clean energy will be more of a priority.
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