The presidential race is tightening. In less than a week, Hillary Clinton's 7-point lead over Donald Trump dropped to 3 points. Some polls have the race at a virtual tie.
According to the forecasters over at FiveThirtyEight, Trump's chances of winning the election are at 30 percent, making him “an underdog, but no longer really a longshot.”
Americans across party lines are now being forced to imagine a government operated under Trump — a man who 370 economists and eight Nobel laureates just called a “dangerous, destructive choice” for president. (That's just one of many groups of prominent intellectuals and individual Republicans who've questioned his ability to perform the basic duties of the presidency.)
Now many within the Department of Energy are grappling with an uncertain future.
“How would you even begin to form an energy policy under a Trump Administration? I don’t know. There’s no way to know what the agency would look like in that world,” said one current staffer interviewed by GTM, who asked not to be named.
We tried to imagine that world.
In interviews with staffers and appointees who work at DOE, or who formerly worked at the agency, a pattern of concerns emerged. All agreed that a Trump Administration would likely fumble or downplay clean energy programs, place more emphasis on fossil fuels, and discourage top talent from working at DOE. But there was disagreement over how drastically things would change.
We also contacted Trump’s energy transition team to ask about the agency’s priorities. We did not hear back.
The DOE is responsible for managing the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal and nuclear waste, plus billions of dollars for R&D at national labs and clean energy commercialization efforts. The agency — once a backwater institution that got little public attention — has become the linchpin of President Obama's climate strategy.
Would the candidate who called climate change a “hoax created by and for the Chinese” be trusted to guide the department during a time of sweeping transformation in the energy sector?
According to those who've worked at the highest levels of the agency, the answer is simple: No.
“What’s at stake? Everything,” said Jonathan Silver, an Obama appointee who led the DOE's loan guarantee office from 2009 to 2011. (After leaving DOE, Silver became an outspoken defender of the agency.)
According to Silver, many within the DOE are worried that nearly every arm of the agency will be vulnerable to attack in a hyper-partisan era.
“The scientists are concerned that we have lost interest in a national commitment to scientific inquiry and fact-based analysis. Program managers are frustrated that they cannot plan properly since their budgets come and go without rhyme or reason. The professionals who deal with DOE clients and others with business before the department are unhappy that they cannot provide better and clear guidance. And everyone is surprised by the backward-looking nature of the Trump plan, seeing it both as unworkable and destined to make America a second-tier player in the new energy economy,” said Silver in a written response to GTM.
Teryn Norris, a former special advisor to the DOE, agreed that a transition from Obama to Trump would be jolting for the department.
“Off the bat, it’s likely to be a fairly antagonistic transition given the overall dynamics in the election and given his stances on energy,” said Norris. “Trump has repeatedly expressed disdain for renewables, and seems likely to gut those programs in EERE [the office of renewable energy and energy efficiency.]”
With the election close, the mood within the department is getting tense, according to another high-level staffer.
“It’s such a difficult scenario to imagine. Who knows what he would even do? With Romney and McCain, their policies were all laid out — it's easy to imagine a future under them,” she said. “With Trump, it's like an alternate reality.”
It's nearly impossible to know what Trump would prioritize within the DOE. He rarely gets into policy details. Those interviewed were less concerned about specific programs, and more concerned about a potential brain drain across the agency.
“No one that I know would actually want to stay and work under his administration. I’ve never heard this type of talk among my peers about leaving entirely,” said a staffer who has been at the agency for most of the Obama Administration. “What does your mission become if you’re working for him? I don’t know if I could get myself to work every day knowing ultimately if we were working for him.”
Norris agreed that staffing would be a challenge. There are plenty of battle-hardened lifers who would stick around DOE no matter who's leading the country or the agency. But if non-political staffers start leaving in droves, that could be a warning sign.
“There could be a mass exodus of late-stage career staff who will not want to work under a Trump Administration,” said Norris.
Worse, the department may have problems attracting top talent — people who could get paid a lot more in the private sector.
“The ability of a Trump Administration to attract top talent in the energy space is going to be very limited,” said Norris. “This is not a small point. One of the greatest challenges at DOE was the ability to attract and maintain top talent among young professionals. In some ways there could be a generational loss in the public sector around clean energy.”
That's true of staffers, fellows and political appointees.
“While the President is, without question, the most important person in any administration, appointees wield significant power as well. When you choose a president, you are also choosing an entire set of officials,” said Silver.
“Imagine that President Trump’s Secretary of Energy does not think that climate change is a real a present danger, and consequently spends no time and no resources on continuing to support the search for solutions,” said Silver. “He or she eliminates ARPA-E and large parts of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, scraps certification and compliance programs and creates new incentives for additional fossil fuel development.”
That is a reasonable scenario to imagine, given Trump's statements on the campaign trail.
Minh Le, the former director of DOE's solar technology office, said that staffing under a Trump Administration could be a real concern.
“You will see many talented people leave because they have options. You tend to get the brain drain of your top talent first,” he said.
But Le was more cautious about how a Trump Administration might dismantle clean energy programs — at least immediately. “Things won’t change over night,” he said.
Aside from redirecting discretionary spending, the president needs to work through Congress to approve a budget for DOE and other agencies. If Trump's team wanted to slash spending on EERE, ARPA-E and government labs — all of which are popular with voters and many lawmakers — they might face resistance.
“The reality is that any significant changes would take significant bipartisan support. Whichever administration it is, it's not like you could just zero out everything. It would take a huge act of Congress,” said Le.
Others are more wary.
Brandon Hurlbut, the former chief of staff for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said that increases in clean energy spending under the Obama Administration were a result of firm vision and political muscle.
“On the budget, the DOE plays a meaningful role in the request. They had to go fight for that [increase in spending for EERE]. They went up to the hill and they work. It does matter because DOE plays a major role in working with Congress on what that looks like,” he said. (Hurlbut also worked on Hillary Clinton's energy and climate policy team during the campaign.)
“Plus, Obama fought for it — he had to really lean in,” he said. “You think Trump would be motivated to do energy storage or efficiency deals? I don’t think so. If you don’t think this is what the government should be doing, and you don’t believe in climate change, you won’t be doing the work to catalyze this industry.”
Even if DOE's budget isn't totally recalibrated, programs like the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation would likely languish, agreed sources. Those two programs were set up to put DOE at the center of international climate negotiations through diplomatic support, information sharing, and public-private investment to accelerate emerging clean technologies.
“Programs on the international front could be on the chopping block,” said Norris.
Trump has said numerous times that he wants to abandon the Paris climate agreement signed last December. If he does walk away from America's commitment to climate action, it could set off a chain reaction through the department.
“It would definitely damage morale because it’s a clear signal,” said a staffer. “If you don’t know what you’re working for anymore, what’s the motivation?”
Trump is a hard person to pin down. He's changed his position on almost every issue. However, based on his campaign rhetoric, many believe Trump will shift the agency's focus away from clean energy and toward fossil fuels.
Does that mean a Trump Administration would dismantle everything the Obama Administration has built at DOE over the last eight years?
It's not that simple, said Le.
“There's rhetoric and reality. I've briefed people who say the nastiest stuff on television. But when you talk to them behind the scenes, they'll understand things are working. They just want to see good execution of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Considering that 84 percent of Trump voters support expanding solar and 77 percent of them support expanding wind, many working on clean energy within DOE are hoping there is a big difference between Trump's campaign rhetoric and reality.