It would be supremely ironic if an illicit transfer of information brought down the U.S. Department of Energy. Yet the prospect looms.
Fierce criticism hit the department last week from a group appointed by President Bill Clinton to investigate security lapses. The problem had nothing to do with energy but rather with one of the department's greater concerns-nuclear weapons technology. The incident revived an old question: Why call this agency an energy department?
DOE began life on Oct. 1, 1977, for organizational reasons that made sense and for political reasons that did not. It made sense to consolidate energy functions formerly scattered around the federal bureaucracy. It made partial sense to link energy regulation with oversight of nuclear programs. But it made little sense to put "energy" in the name of a department principally concerned with other matters.
Atomic rootsBlame for that goes to politics. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, the government seethed with pressure to do something about energy. So Congress, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, consolidated once-disconnected energy programs around market controls already in place, merged them with larger functions that had once belonged to the Atomic Energy Commission, and called the product an energy department.
It took only a few years for market controls and synthetic-fuel subsidies to succumb to economics. DOE thus lost two core programs and most of its responsibility for energy regulation. Yet its name lives on. With it survives the notion that government activism should or can do much about energy. In fact, DOE's best moves on energy have had to do with helping get the government out of energy markets and keeping it out. Real energy regulation occurs elsewhere.
DOE's budget puts its functions in perspective. In the department's fiscal 2000 funding request, which totals $17.8 billion, energy resource programs account for only 12%. Business areas chiefly related to nuclear management-pieces of which do overlap into energy-make up the rest.
Partly because of understandable confusion over DOE's role, proposals to dismantle the agency occasionally arise. All of them, so far, have failed.
This time might be different. After a 90-day investigation of thefts of nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, the presidential panel last week flailed DOE for "organizational disarray, managerial neglect, and a culture of arrogance." It called the department "a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself." The group, chaired by former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, recommended an overhaul.
Given the security breaches and the residual tokenism of the agency's name, a shake-up is probably in order. Even if one occurs, however, the government will still perform most of DOE's current functions somewhere.
To be sure, DOE's true energy programs feather their share of political nests. But they also include efforts, such as administration of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that the country has decided serve national energy interests and that wouldn't exist otherwise.
Information clearinghouseDOE also serves as an important clearinghouse of technical and market information. The role, manifest as it is in technical reports and statistical periodicals, looks routine and tends to be taken for granted. Yet its importance grows with time. Energy security, a righteous concern of government, increasingly depends on free trade and operating efficiency. And trade and efficiency increasingly depend on reliable information.
National interests would not be served if programs supporting proper transfer of information about energy suffered because of improper transfer of nuclear secrets. But an agitated Congress rushing to do something about a problem can make clumsy lurches. The misnamed DOE should know.
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