On May 22, a day before the release of the Trump budget, senior Energy Department officials completed a presentation about a proposed 69 percent cut in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The first slide featured sunny photos of an electric car charger, a wind turbine, a transmission stanchion, and a house with solar panels and an American flag.
The second-to-last slide was not so upbeat. The proposal would mean a 30 percent reduction in staff. “Achieves cost savings by aligning workforce to smaller EERE program,” the slide said blandly.
The next day, about 100 federal employees filed into the wood-paneled auditorium at the Energy Department headquarters to hear about the proposed changes.
“The thing that felt strange was the cavalier nature in which they spoke of, you know, basically devastating cuts to the office,” said an EERE official who listened to a live feed and who agreed to describe the event on the condition of anonymity.
The $1.6 billion of proposed cuts to the Energy Department’s $29.7 billion budget exemplify the Trump administration’s devaluing of the government’s role in promoting scientific research, which has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy since World War II.
In its place, President Trump has promoted a vision of American “energy dominance,” which he outlined in the same room one month later. Heavily focused on digging up fossil fuels and selling them to the world, Trump’s vision did not include renewables or research. “We’ve got underneath us more oil than anybody, and nobody knew it until five years ago. And I want to use it. And I don’t want that taken away by the Paris accord,” the global agreement to fight climate change, Trump told reporters accompanying him on his trip to Paris this month.
The spending cuts would fall heavily on the department’s science and energy areas, which include grant and loan programs as well as funds that flow to many of the department’s 17 national laboratories.
The laboratories originally focused on technologies such as radar, computers and the atomic bomb. Today, they safeguard the U.S. nuclear arsenal but also research fundamental physics, applied materials and technologies designed to improve energy efficiency and slow climate change.
The budget would also eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a relatively small but politically popular program that takes risks to foster innovation.
The proposed cuts have set up a collision between Trump’s Office of Management and Budget and Congress, where many Republicans remain loyal to the department’s science and research programs and where Democrats remain loyal to “clean” energy projects.
On Thursday the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water unveiled a spending bill that would revive ARPA-E and also increase the budget of the Department’s Office of Science to a record $5.55 billion, $1 billion more than the White House budget proposal
From the administration’s point of view, the cuts would allow the department to carry out its “core functions” — the maintenance of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and cleanup of contaminated weapons sites that take up more than half the department’s budget.
But OMB Director Mick Mulvaney faces congressional opponents — Republicans and Democrats — who are championing the energy research programs because their states benefit and because of the value of federal research money.
The Energy Department sends funds to 17 national laboratories, universities and companies around the country; its support is widespread and bipartisan.
“Our new president talks about making America great, and I think a central part of making America great is to use the secret weapons of our research universities and national laboratories,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, said at a June 20 Bipartisan Policy Center event.
Alexander could be one of the administration’s biggest obstacles in Congress. His state is home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Established in 1943, the lab has projects on computing, nuclear energy, energy efficiency in buildings, advanced manufacturing, electric grid security and something called neutron scattering, which could have applications for medicine, energy and technology.
The labs mean jobs. Oak Ridge employs 4,750 people. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado employs 2,200 people studying everything from algae to batteries.
“The lab is good for Colorado and good for our country’s energy future,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said in a statement. “NREL’s work ensures the United States remains a leader in developing cutting-edge energy technologies and grid resiliency, both of which are vital components to an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Congress controls the power of the purse, and I will continue to advocate for NREL.”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has played an ambiguous role.
As governor of Texas, the glad-handing Perry wrote letters urging then-energy secretaries to steer federal largesse to projects in his state, according to departmental correspondence records. He sought money for carbon capture and sequestration, testing wind turbines, organic fuels, loan guarantees for nuclear plants and state energy grants.
Then in 2012, he campaigned for president vowing to abolish the entire Energy Department, famously forgetting its name during one debate.
In his new role as secretary, he called the national laboratories “science and engineering treasures” and the “crown jewel of this country.” On July 3, he tweeted “This Lab is Your Lab” to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s famous anthem.
But the secretary is seen as lacking influence over the agency’s direction. Besides Perry, there have been nominations for only four out of 21 top Senate-confirmed leadership slots at the agency; none has been confirmed.
“There is a complete void of leadership,” said an upper-level official at the department who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect himself from retaliation. “It’s painful.”
The department did not reply to requests for comment or an interview with Perry.
Perry’s own view of climate change, which is in line with other Trump officials, has also stirred up a department built on science.
In a June CNBC interview, he played down human contributions to global warming and said that climate science was not settled. Later that day, an Energy Department official filed a protest through the agency’s seldom-used “differing professional opinion” process.
The secretary’s comment “exposes Mr. Perry’s deep disrespect for publicly funded work done at DOE, conclusions generally reached via the scientific method, and the risk that severe weather and sea level rise pose to highly valuable and sensitive public facilities and assets stewarded by the Department,” the official wrote. “What would happen if Secretary Perry chooses not to believe that water flows downhill at hydropower facilities, or that nuclear waste at DOE facilities is not harmful to people, including employees?”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity pending a resolution of the complaint, has not received a reply.
The Trump administration has also diminished its focus on climate by moving to close the agency’s Climate and Technology Office within its international affairs division, according to two Energy Department employees. The office focuses on scientific engagement with other nations and global talks to promote clean energy.
In a Trumpian vision of government, some departmental programs would be killed altogether. The administration wants to close the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, charged with providing strategic guidance to the department.
The proposed cuts would also abolish ARPA-E, a $300 million-a-year program created by bipartisan 2007 legislation, which funds research on superconducting wires for wind generators, smart window coatings, technology to make natural gas vehicles more economic and practical, and other projects.
“The whole ARPA-E program is exactly right,” said Chad Holliday, a former chief executive at DuPont and now chairman of Shell.
One fear is that other countries will foster their own technologies or purchase U.S. start-ups. “These programs will help the United States maintain its brainpower advantage to remain competitive at a time when other countries are investing heavily in research,” Alexander said.
Chinese companies and universities are already circling U.S. firms that do not get enough funding from the Energy Department, according to Alexander Girau, chief executive and founder of Advano.
The company, which is working on silicon-based materials that might dramatically improve battery performance, failed to get a $1 million Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Energy Department — despite partnerships with Argonne National Laboratory and Tulane University and a recommendation from House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
Girau said he might need to sell a stake in the company, and Chinese-owned Long Power Systems is interested.
“China is making a gigantic push,” Girau said. “If we don’t have these opportunities, we have to go where the money is.”
Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.
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