Addressing the climate crisis on a federal level requires, at minimum, that the agencies and departments of the federal government be fully staffed and equipped to implement and enforce regulations. In the Revolving Door Project’s Climate Capacity Crisis Report, we initially found that the Department of Energy (DOE) had relatively higher staffing levels compared to other agencies, though certainly not enough to fulfill its mandate. As of June 2021, Biden’s DOE had hired 79 more STEM employees than were employed by the department in September 2016, whereas the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior, National Park Service, United States Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency all lost STEM employees within that same time period. Despite the DOE’s comparably impressive staffing levels, a recent Washington Post article revealed that the department was struggling to stay on top of mounting work, causing unnecessary problems in their fight against the climate crisis.
The Post piece outlined that, in line with his administration’s other obstructive climate decisions, former President Trump overturned a ban on incandescent light bulbs in 2019. Incandescent lights emit 4,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per year; popular replacement LED bulbs emit only 10% of that. Incandescent bulbs are also five times more expensive than LED bulbs.
Biden’s administration is now trying to make up for lost time by reinstating the common sense regulation banning incandescent light bulbs and strengthening a dozen other efficiency regulations weakened under Trump. Thanks to the Trump administration’s inaction, 33 energy efficiency standards for home appliances and equipment such as freezers, dryers, and gas furnaces are overdue for an update as of December 2021. That number could jump up to 63 by the end of Biden’s term. If completed, these updates could prevent up to 2.9 billion metric tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere by 2050, which is equivalent to the emissions of approximately 13–25 average-size coal power plants over that period. But insufficient staffing levels at the DOE are hurting the department’s ability to review regulations, propose new ones, and actually enforce those regulations.
Sufficient staff numbers are also especially important considering the never-ending pushback from industry actors who have seemingly limitless time and money. For example, the industry group American Lighting Association asked the DOE to postpone fully implementing stricter lightbulb efficiency standards for two years citing major financial losses for lighting manufacturers and retailers and an abundant supply of environmentally harmful bulbs in showrooms and landfills. Similarly, the American Public Gas Association objected to tougher standards for gas furnaces, claiming the regulations would make furnaces unaffordable and turn consumers away from gas entirely (would that really be so bad?). And with Federalist Society judges strewn across the judiciary up to and very much including the Supreme Court, careful responses to every claim from industry will be necessary, even (especially!) if the claims are made in bad faith. With an adequate workforce, DOE would be much better positioned to efficiently and decisively parry these attempts to block climate action.
The DOE’s latest hiring initiative suggests an awareness of the importance of workplace capacity. Earlier this month, the Energy Department launched its Clean Energy Corps and a hiring portal to attract 1,000 additional workers dedicated to climate change and clean energy policy. Adding 1,000 staff members would mark the DOE’s largest staff expansion since 1977. If recent history is any guide, however, recruiting and onboarding the Clean Energy Corps may pose challenges. Unlike many of its counterparts, the DOE’s budget has actually grown by over 25 percent since 2017 but, as Congress has noted, the slow pace of hiring programs like those in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, especially during Trump’s presidency, has not kept apace. As it undertakes new hiring in the coming months, DOE must seek to continually make improvements to the hiring process to bring high quality candidates on board as efficiently as possible. Our report concludes with a series of recommendations that could hopefully speed up the hiring process, including, making changes at OPM, authorizing expedited hiring authorities, identifying agency success stories, and encouraging more widespread adoption.
In addition to this new hiring, the DOE may still need to advocate for additional funding beyond the $46 million that it requested for its FY 2022 operating budget. Overall, the DOE is operating with 2,645 fewer employees in 2020 than it did in 2010, yet the challenges that it faces have only grown. According to their FY 2022 budget request, the agency is looking to hire a total of 198 more full-time equivalent employees. However, this would likely fall short of what the DOE needs to address their ever-growing workload. At the very least, the DOE should get staff numbers back to what they were in 2010 and emphasize hiring more STEM employees to work on climate initiatives. In reality, however, the Department will almost certainly need to go beyond 2010 funding levels to both rebuild lost capacity, and to support much-needed new projects. Robust funding and staffing levels are needed to effectively carry out initiatives like the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate and the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP).
In all, while our report found that the DOE hired more people under Biden than the other agencies we examined, the Post article and the DOE’s latest hiring initiatives make it clear that the department is still understaffed.Encouraging as recent developments are, they are nevertheless inadequate. A recognition of the urgency of the moment makes clear that the Biden Administration must promulgate a plan for DOE as ambitious as the challenges we face are vast.