Turnover at the DOE
Reported by Anchor and Managing Editor Susan McGinnis, Executive Editor Margaret Ryan, and Correspondent Dan Goldstein.
A spate of turnovers at the top of the Obama administration and in the Department of Energy leadership has some in Washington speculating about the future of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A former DOE official and a veteran energy industry analyst tell energyNOW! that the Nobel Prize winner and former head of Lawrence Berkeley Labs could be ready to move on after the mid-term elections.
At the White House, President Obama has lost his chief of staff, his top economics expert, his budget director, his national security advisor, and the head of his Council of Economic Advisors, with the Secretary of Defense planning to leave next year. Democrats say the turnover is due to exhaustion -- Republicans claim it's a failing administration. But whatever the causes, it looks like DOE's leadership is undergoing a similar turnover.
DOE has been struggling to allocate two to three times its normal budget over the last 18 months, money aimed at energy projects from the stimulus bill. Chu brought on Matt Rogers from McKinsey & Co. to help get the money out the door, and Rogers resigned last month to return to the private sector, as the stimulus authority expired, as he'd long said he intended to do. But following him out the door are Under Secretary Kristina Johnson, leaving after just 16 months to return to academia, and two assistant secretaries, both in office since August 2009. They were nuclear energy chief Warren “Pete” Miller and fossil energy chief Jim Markowsky. Both are retiring. Only temporary "acting" replacements were named for all three, which indicates none of those decisions were long planned.
So might Chu be next? Besides the pressure cooker atmosphere at the leadership level that DOE veterans say transcends administrations and burns out the best of appointees, one source said Chu had expected to do more science and less politics. The source added the White House isn't happy with what's seen as Chu's slow pace getting stimulus money out the door. While some green groups praise Chu for moving money faster out of the bureaucracy than ever in DOE history, it hasn't been enough for the hard-pressed administration. A DOE Inspector General audit this month found, in one program to aid state energy programs, three-quarters of the funds were committed but less than 10% had actually been paid out into the economy. And the Chu rumors could be gaining currency from Democrats who'll be unemployed in January, and who have scouts out reconnoitering opportunities. Those scouts don't always wait for vacancies to start circulating their bosses' names.
Potential replacements for Chu being bandied about include departing North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, who oversees the DOE budget on the Appropriations Committee and was on the short list for the job two years ago, and departing Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. Both have been active proponents of both conventional and new energy technologies. Other names making the rounds include FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, a protege of embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who leaves office due to term limits in January. But Chu does carry a special cachet, with his Nobel Prize and scientific expertise, that will be hard to match. And DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller told us that Chu has no plans to leave. "He's not going anywhere," she said.
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