Just two days before telling Fox News in a TV interview that “nobody really knows” if climate change is real, President-elect Donald Trump sent major waves through the Department of Energy with a list of 74 questions for the agency.
While most of the questions hint at reversing every climate and energy policy President Barack Obama has set in the past eight years, there’s one specific question that is hitting a nerve—and being called everything from a “witch hunt” to “McCarthyism.”
According to multiple media sources, the questionnaire requests a list of individual scientists who have taken part in international climate talks in the past five years, and those that have carried out research to meet the goals set by President Obama since 2008.
“Any politically motivated inquisition against federal civil servants who, under the direction of a previous administration, carried out policies that you now oppose, would call into question your commitment to the rule of law and the peaceful transition of power,” wrote Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a letter he sent to Trump on Friday after news of this questionnaire broke. “Civil servants should never be punished for having executed policies with which a new administration disagrees. That would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt, and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce.”
Just two weeks ago, more than 2,300 scientists from all 50 states signed and released an open letter to Trump calling for his administration to “adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence.”
The questionnaire seems to single out national laboratory employees, who have traditionally operated with a great deal of independence despite being funded by the government. In fact, there are nine questions listed under the subhead “questions for labs.” According to a copy of the questions obtained by the The Washington Post, Trump’s transition team asked how and when independent evaluation panels “assess the scientific value” of the work done by national labs. They also asked for a list of the top 20 salaried employees, the labs’ peer-reviewed publications over the past three years, a list of their professional society memberships, websites they maintain or contribute to, and a list of all other positions currently held by lab staff, such as board member.
The list of peer-reviewed publications is public information, so it can both be provided by the national labs and discovered by Trump’s transition team. The rest of the information, however, is not publically available, so it cannot be released unless in a classified briefing.
While questionnaires from transition teams are common, and even conflicts between Republican presidents and federal agency scientists, the fact that Trump has asked for individual names is almost unprecedented.
“The Union of Concerned Scientists strongly condemns the effort by the President-elect’s transition team to seek the names of federal employees who have conducted climate research and worked on issues such as the social cost of carbon. We cannot imagine any legitimate purpose to this inquiry. It seems designed to intimidate those federal workers and make them think twice about working for the federal government,” said Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Creating lists of employees smacks of McCarthyism and should cease immediately. And Department of Energy employees should resist complying with any demands that would compromise the independence of the agency’s experts.”
Other areas of question
While we don’t know much about Trump’s policies come January 20, this line of questioning certainly seems to forecast his administration’s overall direction.
Perhaps the most telling question is No. 31—“if DOE’s topline budget…were required to be reduced by 10% over the next four fiscal years, does the Department have any recommendations as to where those reductions should be made?”
There are multiple questions about nuclear power plants, including if there are any statutory restrictions to restarting the Yucca Mountain project, and if the DOE has a plan to resume the license proceedings of that project. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is/was a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste. The project was approved in 2002, but federal funding for the site ended in 2011 under the Obama Administration.
The nuclear questioning continues, with Trump’s transition team asking how the DOE can support existing reactors, how it can prevent premature closure of plants, how it can support the licensing of small modular reactors, and how the agency can optimize its advanced reactor R&D activities.
Fifteen questions were set aside specifically for the Energy Information Administration, the DOE’s statistical arm. Most of them were about the department’s Annual Energy Outlook 2016, probing whether the forecast overestimates renewable technologies and underestimated future U.S. oil and gas production. Questions are also aimed at staffing and the quality of the department’s data and analysis.