What happened: Under the Trump administration, the Department of Energy (DOE) buried, delayed, or sidelined 46 studies on clean energy, including studies on the use of hydropower, wind, and solar energy.
Why it matters: By suppressing scientific studies for political reasons, political officials limited the access of important scientific information to the wider public and hindered the ability of the government to carry out policy actions based on the best available science. This may hinder the ability to create evidence-based actions using clean energy research, actions which could help tackle the growing threat of climate change.
Officials from the Department of Energy (DOE) buried, delayed, or sidelined at least 46 studies on clean energy, according to a set of emails, documents, and more than a dozen interviews with current and former DOE employees. The 46 blocked studies originated from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) – affecting almost every program within the agency – and seven DOE national labs. This includes the suppression of an influential report known as the Interconnections Seam Study (also called Seams), which looks at the energy grid and integration of renewable energy sources. Political officials levied a number of actions that undermined the DOE studies, including delaying studies through a political review process, replacing the studies with presentations, and diminishing the public accessibility of studies.
Two political officials – Daniel Simmons, the EERE’s Assistant Secretary, and Alex Fitzsimmons, at the time Simmons’ Chief of Staff – devised a particularly problematic system in May 2018. It required DOE scientists to obtain signoff from political appointees in order to publish certain studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The system subdivided EERE research into two tiers. Tier 1 contained scientific research with more politically sensitive topics, such as research focused on comparing different energy sources (like fossil fuels and renewables), research projecting the future growth of the renewable energy industry, and certain scientific analyses with policy implications. Tier 1 required that this research undergo a political review, including from high-level officials like Simmons and Fitzsimmons. This allowed political appointees to scrutinize the scientists’ findings, demand changes, and prevent the release of certain studies. Tier 2 contained the rest of EERE’s research and did not require a political review process.
The two-tiered system led to frequent political interference in EERE studies. The new system was also implemented rapidly with little time to adjust – according to researchers from one of DOE’s national labs, DOE officials were given just six days to declare all studies or reports that were due out in next three months. According to three senior researchers at the national labs, this process led to at least 25 reports delayed from publication for over six months. These three researchers stated that, in comparison, there were only five or fewer studies delayed for that long under the combined 16 years of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Many of the blocked studies contained evidence of the benefits of renewable energy sources as compared to traditional energy sources.
Several researchers and some high-ranking career staff have issued complaints that these actions constituted violations of the DOE’s scientific integrity policy. Multiple sources state that David Solan, a political appointee at EERE, has undermined these complaints by claiming that blocking the publication of scientific studies does not constitute a violation of the scientific integrity policy. Solan has claimed that “techno-economic analysis,” which are usually designated as Tier 1 research, are not protected by the scientific integrity policy. The scientific integrity policy states that all DOE employees and contractors are prohibited from direct actions or coercion to “suppress or alter scientific or technological findings.”
Researchers at national labs across the country faced an additional review process by the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is the national lab that reviews all studies and sends them to DOE offices located in Washington, DC. The National Renewable Energy Lab replaced some of the studies with conference presentations or outright canceled other studies. One lab researcher said that “We have a whole review process that involves upper management where anything controversial gets reviewed and discussed and most likely taken out.”
The mission of the EERE is to “create and sustain American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy,” a duty that was clearly violated by the suppression of 46 studies on clean energy. The federal government depends on robust scientific studies when carrying out evidence-based policy actions. By hindering the publication of these studies, the DOE also hampered the ability of the federal government to transition to clean energy and reduce the emissions of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change and its devastating impacts.