The Trump transition team issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which employees involved in climate talks. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
Donald Trump’s transition team has issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking agency officials to identify which employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output.
The questionnaire requests a list of those individuals who have taken part in international climate talks over the past five years and “which programs within DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.”
Trump and his team have vowed to dismantle specific aspects of Obama’s climate policies, and Trump has questioned the reality of climate change. The questionnaire, which one Energy Department official described as unusually “intrusive” and a matter for departmental lawyers, has raised concern that the Trump transition team is trying to figure out how to target the people, including civil servants, who have helped implement policies under Obama.
Thousands of scientists have signed petitions calling on the president-elect and his team to respect scientific integrity and refrain from singling out individual researchers whose work might conflict with the new administration’s policy goals. This potential clash could prompt a major schism within the federal government, with many career officials waging a battle against incoming political appointees.
While there have been many instances of political appointees and career scientists clashing in various administrations, what is novel is the request for the names of so many individual scientists, and the fact that it comes during the transition period, before the Trump administration has even taken power. This may be a signal of even more intense politicization after the inauguration.
Yale University environmental historian Paul Sabin said in an interview that previous administrations have worked to install like-minded energy and environmental experts in key agencies, often at the expense of employees from previous administrations.
“But what seems unusual is singling people out for a very specific substantive issue, and treating their work on that substantive issue as, by default, contaminating or disqualifying,” Sabin said, adding that officials can now track a civil servant’s past activities “in such a systematic way.”
During Ronald Reagan’s time, when his political appointees sparred with officials at the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, Sabin noted, “it would have been so much harder to collect it on paper and track it down.”
Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment. White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters that he could not speak to the questionnaire directly, saying, “If you have questions about activity that the president-elect’s team is doing, you should check in with them and try and figure out why they’re doing it.”
But Schultz added: “All I can tell you is that President Obama is enormously proud of the work of civil servants and federal workers across the administration, that over the past eight years they’ve worked to make this country stronger. And they don’t do so out a sense of great pay or because the hours are great. They do so out of a sense of patriotism. And the president’s proud of their record.”
The questionnaire was first reported by Bloomberg News. The Washington Post has obtained its own copies of both the initial document and one with some of the agency’s replies filled in, in addition to confirmation from other people in the department that the documents are legitimate.
Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a physicist, warned that the questionnaire “threatens to undo decades of progress we have made on climate change,” and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said punishing civil servants for their work under previous administrations “would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce.”
The document spanned a broad area of Energy Department activities, including its loan program, technology research program, responses to Congress, estimates of offshore wind and cleanup of uranium at a site once used by the military for weapons research. In many cases, the inquiries meshed with the priorities of conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which held a meeting on energy and environment issues in Washington on Thursday, as well as priorities outlined in a recent fundraising pitch sent by the American Energy Alliance (AEA), a wing of the Institute for Energy Research.
Thomas Pyle, who heads the AEA, leads Trump’s Energy Department transition team. In a recent fundraising pitch, Pyle wrote supporters: “After eight years of the Obama administration’s divisive energy and environmental policies, the American people have voted for a change — a big change. We expect the Trump administration will adopt pro-energy and pro-market policies — much different than the Obama administration’s top-down government approach.”
One question zeroed in on the issue of the “social cost of carbon,” a way of calculating the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. The transition team asked for a list of department employees or contractors who attended interagency meetings, the dates of the meetings, and emails and other materials associated with them.
The social cost of carbon is a metric that calculates the cost to society of emitting a ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The Obama administration has used this tool to try to calculate the benefits of regulations and initiatives that lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
At Thursday’s Heritage meeting, senior fellow David Kreutzer attacked the idea of using the social cost of carbon during the regulatory process. He said it “actually can be considered a fiction, the way it’s produced in the [Environmental Protection Agency] right now,” adding that it “is supposedly a measure of the damage done to the world economy for each ton of carbon emitted in a given year.” Kreutzer is a member of Trump’s EPA transition team; Trump recently named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is suing the EPA over its environmental regulations, to head the EPA.
Another question appeared to delve deeply into the mechanisms behind scientific tools called “integrated assessment models,” which scientists use to forecast future changes to the climate and energy system. It also asked what the Energy Department considers to be “the proper equilibrium climate sensitivity,” which is a way climate researchers calculate how much the planet will eventually warm, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.
“My guess is that they’re trying to undermine the credibility of the science that DOE has produced, particularly in the field of climate science,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford climate and energy researcher, in response to the question about the integrated assessment models.
The questionnaire also appeared to take aim at the national laboratories, which operate with a high degree of independence but are part of the Energy Department. The questionnaire asked for a list of the top 20 salaried employees of the labs, the labs’ peer-reviewed publications over the past three years, a list of their professional society memberships, affiliations, and the websites they maintain or contribute to “during work hours.” Researchers at national labs focus on a range of issues, including renewable-energy development and climate analysis.
Career Energy officials who are the designated liaisons to the Trump transition team are allowed to disclose only publicly available information, unless it is in the context of a classified briefing to transition team members who have obtained security clearance through the White House. A response to the question about the top 20 salaried employees read: “DOE does not collect this information. This would require a call to the Labs, and the information is not available publicly.” The department gave a similar to reply to questions about professional society memberships, websites they maintain or contribute to, and paid and unpaid positions.
The transition team questionnaire also asked how to keep open aging nuclear power plants, restart the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site shelved by Obama and support the licensing of small modular reactors.
It included 15 questions for the Energy Information Administration, some of them routine but some questioning the way the agency uses data about energy production.
The questions called to mind past cases of conflicts between Republican administrations and federal agency scientists, on the environment and other matters.
In Reagan’s first term, Anne Gorsuch was appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency amid a major push for regulatory rollback. But after Gorsuch resigned amid controversy in 1983, Congress opened investigations into supposed “hit lists” at the agency used to track the views of members of scientific advisory boards, according to contemporary news reports.
During the George W. Bush administration, there were complaints that scientific documents had been edited to raise doubts about the science of climate change and that researchers had been prevented from speaking openly to the media and sharing their expertise.
In late 2010, the Obama administration issued governmentwide “scientific integrity” guidelines aimed at shielding federal scientists from political interference, part of an effort to distinguish itself from the Bush administration. The four-page memo, written by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, included a prohibition against agency leaders or public affairs officers asking or demanding federal scientists to alter or suppress their findings. It also instructed agencies to “involve science and technology experts where appropriate” to craft “policymaking of the highest integrity.”
Energy Department officials have not yet decided how to respond to the questions targeting the agency’s climate activities, according to federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“With some of these questions, it feels more like an inquisition than a question, in terms of going after career employees who have been here through the Bush years to Clinton, and up to now,” said one current Energy Department employee. “All of a sudden you have questions that feel more like a congressional investigation than an actual probing of how the Department of Energy does its job.”
Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, called the memo’s demand that Energy officials identify specific employees “alarming.”
“If the Trump administration is already singling out scientists for doing their jobs, the scientific community is right to be worried about what his administration will do in office. What’s next? Trump administration officials holding up lists of ‘known climatologists’ and urging the public to go after them?” Halpern asked.
He added that lawmakers have attacked executive-branch scientists in the past for doing “work they find inconvenient. It seems that they are about to get accomplices in the Department of Energy. But don’t expect the federal workforce to simply roll over. The new administration will find thousands of federal workers who still believe in their departmental mission and will work hard to resist attacks on their peers. Scientists outside government are standing by to expose these actions and fight back.”
Christine McEntee, the executive director of the American Geophysical Union, a large society of Earth scientists, added in response to the questionnaire that “we don’t know at AGU the intent of all these questions, but if you look at them without knowing that intent, they are raising alarm for us.”
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McEntee said that in general, when it comes to politics and science under Trump, “we’re hearing a lot from members, they’re quite concerned.” At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco next week, where more than 20,000 scientists gather annually, there will be sessions on the consequences of the election for science and on giving publicly funded scientists legal advice on how to respond to requests for their communications, she said.
The Trump transition team’s meetings with Energy Department officials so far have excluded political appointees, one current official said.
At the Defense Department, Trump transition officials are having multiple meetings a day with Pentagon personnel but in some cases have asked Obama administration political appointees not to attend those meetings, officials there said.
Chris Mooney, Brady Dennis and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.
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