A Trump transition team questionnaire to the Department of Energy triggered political outcry over the last two weeks. It was mostly centered on whether staff and contractors involved in climate change policy would face repercussions. Less noticed in the dustup and subsequent disavowal of the list of 72 questions by the Trump shop were questions directed toward the Energy Information Administration, the independent agency housed at DOE responsible for compiling key data about the energy sector.
Yet some Democratic lawmakers last week worried that questions directed toward EIA could put political pressure on an agency meant to operate independently from DOE.
The consternation over the memo may be easing, however, as the Trump transition team on December 14 distanced itself from the effort, saying the original questionnaire was "not authorized or part of our standard protocol."
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"The person who sent it has been properly counseled," the transition team said in an email.
Senator Edward Markey, Democrat-Massachusetts, said the transition team was "right to abandon its effort to conduct a politically-motivated witch hunt at the Department of Energy."
Nonetheless, seven Senate Democrats late last week called on the Office of Special Counsel to investigate "the apparent attempt to retaliate or discriminate against federal employees," saying the transition team's "opaque response" to the concerns only increases the need for an independent investigation.
Document questions EIA objectivity, independence
Questions about how EIA has assessed the cost of renewable energy sources as well as its hiring plans prior to the change in administration were among those that had been included in the questionnaire.
Writing to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz December 13, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, Democrat-Washington, raised concern that the questions "even challenge the independent data analysis functions performed by EIA."
"The potential ramifications are chilling. Federal civil service employees and government contractors may in the future be reluctant to perform certain tasks for fear that a subsequent election may bring retribution. Political appointees and civil servants might view each other suspiciously, impairing agencies’ abilities to pursue their missions," she wrote. Cantwell promised to monitor the transition process and asked Moniz to share all correspondence between DOE and the president-elect's transition team.
On the House side, Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Democrat-New Jersey, and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, Democrat-Maryland, wrote to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to raise concerns more broadly that there may be an attempt to apply an "ideological 'litmus test' to career servants," singling out those involved in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Pallone in an emailed statement worried the questions directed to EIA more specifically were designed to discourage data collection in a number of areas that the incoming Trump administration opposes.
"Many of the questions in the survey appear designed to call into doubt the objectivity and quality of EIA’s work, particularly in the areas of renewable energy and the effect of climate change on the growth of certain technologies. There is an almost Orwellian overtone to this survey that is as outrageous as it is inappropriate," he said.
Among the questions posed about EIA were how the agency has ensured its independence over the past eight years under the Obama administration, as well as personnel questions such as what plans EIA has to fill any vacancies before January 20.
Focus is on renewables, climate change
It also raised questions about whether EIA's assessments of levelized costs for renewable technologies are correct in excluding expenses, such as backup costs for fossil-fuel technologies that replace them when they are down.
Another question asked how EIA has represented transmission costs needed for solar and renewable technologies, as well as why an EIA reference case in an annual forecast did not use information that better represented the shale gas and oil renaissance.
EIA's inclusion of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan in its reference case also came into question.
While EIA is a statistical agency whose mapping of industry trends generate little fanfare, its findings can also factor into policy debates such as the achievability of climate goals.
This August, EIA projected the North American generation mix in 2025 to be just short of a 50% clean power generation goal set in June by heads of state for the US, Canada and Mexico. Based on data from EIA's Annual Energy Outlook 2016 and International Energy Outlook 2016 reports, it said generation from renewable and nuclear sources would grow from 38% in 2015 to 45% in 2025.
EIA's projections assumed that the Clean Power Plan — a rule calling for a 32% drop from 2005 levels in the existing generation fleet’s carbon emissions by 2030 — survives legislative and legal attacks. Implementation of the rule was stayed by the Supreme Court in February until a lower court can rule on the measure's legality.
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