While most of Washington is fascinated with the triangle of strong personalities that President-elect Barack Obama has empowered to preside over foreign policy (Jones, Clinton and Biden), another constituency is wracked with the agony of hope. It is the bitterly divided energy constituency which hopes that a new secretary of energy will lean their way.
The most hopeful of these are the greens who have taken Obama at his word, and who expect a flood of money for wind, solar and biomass; great new jobs; and crippling limits to the use of coal and nuclear.
But there is another constituency that believes that it is the real green alternative: coal. Or, more precisely clean coal. Already, this receives nearly $1 billion a year in funding, much of it going to carbon capture and sequestration–a concept fraught with legal, political and technical difficulties but popular with the utilities and the miners. Died-in-the-wool environmentalists look at it as a trick at best and a semantic obfuscation, designed to deceive the public, at worst. Clean or otherwise, coal will be burned for decades to come–most of it in its dirty form, the experts tacitly acknowledge.
Another constituency, which was just feeling it could be listened to is nuclear. John McCain raised hopes when he talked about 45 new reactors, and nuclear advocates hoped that Obama heard that loud and clear.
Now, two clouds hang on the nuclear horizon: opposition in the Democratic Congress and the credit drought. The advocates believe they can coax the Congress to their point of view, especially with a pro-nuclear secretary. But they are not so sure about the credit markets, even with loan guarantees. A new plant could cost between $10 billion and $14 billion. That is a lot of borrowing and John Rowe, the chief of mighty Exelon Corporation, has said no utility can build the plants unaided.
Then there are the seldom heard but influential nuclear weapons hawks who would like to see a secretary who understands the aging nuclear stockpile, and worries about the effectiveness of weapons that have not been tested in a generation. They want the stockpile updated; new weapons designed and built and, if feasible, tested underground. They are said to be lead by that grand old man of Washington policy wonks, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. They point out that $20 billion of the Department of Energy’s $25 billion budget is earmarked for weapons. It goes to the somewhat autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.
To be secretary of energy is to preside over a complex archipelago of almost totally unrelated responsibilities. The department has nuclear waste, nuclear verification, nuclear stockpiles, warhead decommissioning, and various black programs to deal with before one calorie of energy is produced.
A source with 30 years of experience in the DOE warns: “You can’t turn a battleship around in the bathtub, and budgeting here is like that.”
The department is not only remarkable in its reach but also in its staffing. It directly employs about 7,000 people. But through the big nine national laboratories, it has dominion over 130,000 people. This makes the DOE unique and, in some respects, advantages it. While the labs work on far-flung projects for other agencies, and sometimes private corporations, they are controlled and funded by DOE. One secretary told me: “It’s like having a private army. The labs, with all of their Ph.Ds will do anything so long as you fund them.”
What is certain is that the new secretary, unless he or she has had extensive experience with the department, will be shocked to learn that the DOE has little to do with energy today. It is really a series of giant sandboxes for scientists to play in.