President-elect Joe Biden added another luminary to his climate team last week when he named former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as his choice to head the Energy Department. Granholm is a great pick for what Biden wants her to do; it's the department that isn't quite the right fit — and it's time to reorganize it so its perceived mandate matches its actual mandate.
Despite its name, dealing with energy production isn't the Energy Department's main function, which understandably many people might assume.
Because, despite its name, dealing with energy production isn't the Energy Department's main function, which understandably many people might assume. The majority of the department's budget is focused on maintaining, upgrading and guarding the country's nuclear weapons. As Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told The Washington Post: "The Energy Department is actually the Nuclear Weapons Department."
Rick Perry had to learn that the hard way soon after he accepted President Donald Trump's offer to run the Energy Department. He "gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state," Texas, The New York Times reported in January 2017. Only later did he learn that he was going to be "the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States' nuclear arsenal."
That's why world-renowned physicists were at the helm of the Energy Department during the Obama administration. It's ironic that Stephen Chu, a Nobel Prize winner who ran the department from 2009 to 2013, was the first secretary in decades to have to focus intensely on energy issues. An extra $39 billion — $10 billion more than his annual budget — landed in his lap as part of the 2009 stimulus bill, which he then hustled to spend on new renewable energy projects.
Chu was followed by Ernest Moniz, another star physicist, who had run MIT's Energy Initiative before he joined the administration. Moniz's biggest claim to fame came when he was named as a co-negotiator during the high-level talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal between the U.S. and other major world powers on one side and Iran on the other. His grasp of nuclear issues was so complete that his reputation was needed to sell the deal domestically. As an Obama administration official told The Times: "The theory is that Ernie's judgment on that matter is unassailable."
The department's dual nature vexed Biden's transition team.
The department's dual nature vexed Biden's transition team, which was reported to have "struggled over whether the Energy Department should be led by someone steeped in its core mission, ensuring the safety of the country's nuclear arsenal, or whether Mr. Biden should select someone with a vision for leading a clean-energy transformation."
Granholm's pick clearly means the Biden team went with the latter. But the Energy Department needs the runway to do what it needs to on climate change. And without a major change, I'm not sure that it will be able to do that. Before he became secretary, Perry famously suggested that we get rid of the Energy Department. I've come to agree with him — sort of.
I think that the country would be better served splitting the department in two. The functions related to the nuclear weapons arsenal — the National Nuclear Security Agency, the Y-12 nuclear security complex, the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory and others — are all clearly important. But they should be spun off into a new, independent agency whose Senate-confirmed administrator reports to the White House. (The Pentagon already has enough on its plate and budget, and I'd rather not expand the behemoth that is the Defense Department any further.) That would allow the nuclear arsenal to keep the committed focus it deserves while deprioritizing its place in the federal bureaucracy.
I think that the country would be better served splitting the department in two.
A newly reformed department, which I propose would be called the Department of Energy and Climate, would encompass the rest of the current department's functions, including continuing to run the national laboratory system. Ideally, it would also be a new home to several other agencies that deal directly with climate change. That could entail absorbing the Environmental Protection Agency and finally swiping the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency from the Commerce Department.
It's clear that Biden cares about making climate policy central to his administration and appointing people who can show results. It would help if Granholm could focus her complete attention on those policies. It would take an act of Congress to approve the split, but it's something the Biden administration should make a priority, if not for Granholm, then for whoever comes next. It's her job to worry about saving the planet — she shouldn't also have to worry about our ability to destroy it.