U.S. Department of Energy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Department of Energy is charged with developing the overall energy policy for the United States. Much of its attention is directed toward coal, nuclear energy, and oil policy, although it also concerns itself with alternative sources of energy. It is also in charge of administering the repositories for nuclear waste and the operational aspects of nuclear weapons development.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is a relatively new federal department with roots that go back to the Atomic Energy CommissionAtomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was founded in 1946 to provide for civilian control of nuclear energy. From the founding of the AEC onward, the United States has pursued an approach to energy policy in which industry often shapes energy policy as much as does any government agency. The energy crisis of the mid-1970’s led to calls for a unified energy policy for the United States. At President Jimmy Carter, JimmyCarter’s urging, Congress combined several energy-related agencies into an umbrella cabinet department in 1977. Although the DOE was charged with overall oversight for energy policy, much of its attention has been devoted to nuclear energy, reflecting the continuing impact of the AEC’s legacy.Energy, U.S. Department of

After a strong start during the Carter administration with James Schlesinger as secretary of energy, the DOE developed a checkered character. The department was, in many ways, under siege during the Ronald Reagan, RonaldReagan administration, as several members of the administration, including the president, wished to abolish the DOE, or at least privatize energy policy as much as possible. The DOE’s reputation regained some luster during the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton years, but it had to devote a good deal of attention to issues stemming from the dismantling of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex as the Cold WarCold War wound down. During the administration of George W. Bush, the DOE often came under fire for its policies regarding coal mining and global warming.

Early Years

Partially in response to energy shortages during the mid-1970’s, the Carter administration presented a legislative package to Congress that included creating a cabinet-level department to be responsible for energy policy and research. The DOE incorporated the old AEC and thus had oversight responsibility for the Nuclear power industrynuclear power industry and aspects of the nuclear weapons complex, such as weapons production. The new department also included the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which dealt with the licensing of hydroelectric power projects and natural gas transmission. The Economic Energy Regulatory Commission dealt with oil pricing and importation, and the Energy Information Administration centralized federal data-gathering concerning energy. The DOE faced the continuing challenge of energy shortages, at times with efforts at mandated energy allocations, throughout the 1970’s, although these efforts were beginning to abate by 1979. The department also dealt with the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant that effectively ended the already-declining demand for nuclear power plants.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan attacked many of Carter’s energy policies, such as price and allocation controls on gasoline, and even advocated the abolition of the DOE. James Edwards, Reagan’s energy secretary in 1981-1982, worked to return much of American energy policy to the private sector by weakening the department’s oversight of the energy industry. The Reagan administration also emphasized the use of coal and nuclear power as means of generating energy self-sufficiency. The administration supported efforts to use coal by supporting research directed at curbing pollution generated by its burning. Its advocacy of nuclear power led to the passage of the Nuclear Waste Act of 1982Nuclear Waste Act of 1982, which offered a long-term solution to the management of high-level nuclear waste. Three possible repository sites were selected in 1986. The DOE also began considering how to dispose of low- and medium-level nuclear waste.

When it took over the AEC’s mandate, the DOE had also assumed responsibility for oversight of the nuclear weapons industry. Nuclear weapons production had been handled by private firms as government contractors since the end of World War II, but they often operated with little oversight from the AEC. A report commissioned by the DOE in 1987 criticized the safety standards for several weapons-production facilities and conceded that weapons-production reactors were not always in compliance with federal Environmentsafety standards for reactor operation. Standards for the disposal of nuclear waste at these sites were generally poorly enforced. In 1988, some weapons facilities had to be shut down because of radiation leaks and other safety concerns. These safety issues became intertwined with Reagan’s efforts to restart nuclear weapons production.

Post-Cold War Issues and Global Warming

Global warming is one problem the Department of Energy must face. The village of Shaktoolik, Alaska, shown in 2006, is facing the same erosion problem due to climate change that forced it to relocate in the 1960’s.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

With the election of George H. W. Bush in 1988, the DOE adopted a policy of cleaning up the contaminated weapons complex. It also moved to further research in nuclear power and to implement a high-level nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The DOE’s broader energy strategy was caught up in the oil shortage produced by the Gulf War in 1991. Nonetheless, the Energy Policy Act of 1992Energy Policy Act of 1992 enunciated a broad-based energy policy that advocated developing multiple sources of energy, as well as pursuing energy conservation, as means of ensuring American energy self-sufficiency. President Bush proclaimed that the Cold War was over, but cleaning up the remnants of several decades of nuclear weapons production remained a major challenge for the DOE, and it was forced to change weapons-facility contractors in some cases to find companies more amenable to a concern for safety.

Beginning in 1993, President Clinton, BillClinton’s secretary of energy, Hazel O’Leary, engaged in a reorganization of the department that helped revitalize the DOE’s central role in energy policy. The Clinton DOE emphasized use of natural gas, development of alternative energy sources, and energy conservation as means for ensuring energy self-sufficiency and decreasing environmental degradation. Concern for this latter issue was a new departure for the DOE, which had generally not considered environmental issues in its policies in the past.

Agencies within the DOE that dealt with the nuclear weapons complex still accounted for a large share of the department’s budget, as much remained to be done to deal with lingering problems of nuclear weapons production. The DOE also turned its attention to Global warmingglobal warming caused by burning hydrocarbons such as coal and oil. Its emphasis was on achieving more efficient energy generation as well as decreasing pollution. Part of this attention was devoted to helping industries compete effectively in the global marketplace through efficient energy use. The department also provided increased funding for basic research for alternative energy sources in areas such as solar and wind power. Because of the stagnant demand for nuclear power, the DOE decreased research dollars for programs such as the development of a gas-cooled reactor. The new strategic plan for the DOE integrated four areas that had not been well-coordinated in the past: science and technology, energy resources, defense programs, and environmental restoration. The plan placed science and technology at the core but emphasized the interrelated nature of the four areas, as well as adding an emphasis on maintaining industrial competitiveness.

Into the Twenty-first Century

The election of George W. Bush, George W.Bush in 2000 brought yet another shift in energy policy and the focus of the DOE. Aside from some changes dealing with renewable energy sources and the environmental problems arising from some energy sources such as coal, American energy policy had not changed for some time. It was apparent, however, that the United States needed a coherent, broad-based energy policy that went beyond the plans of the Clinton years in dealing with issues of both energy self-sufficiency and environmental protection. Several Bush DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appointees came from the energy industry, as did Vice President Dick Cheney, who often consulted representatives from U.S. energy companies in making policy. They quickly moved to redirect energy policy once again.

The DOE shifted its approach to energy development to one concentrating on opening Western federal lands to energy development, massive extraction of coal, and drilling for oil and gas wherever possible–including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge–often ignoring any resulting environmental problems. Other forms of energy received short shrift at the hands of the Bush DOE. For example, when $135,000 was needed to print copies of the 2001 energy plan, the funds were taken from the DOE’s solar and renewable energy conservation funds.

The energy plans of the Bush DOE had the merit of constituting a coherent approach to energy development. The plans tended to neglect renewable energy in favor of coal, oil, and natural gas, and they were usually prepared with scant concern for environmental consequences or long-term economic costs. The DOE worked with the EPA to relax environmental regulations so as to make it easier to extract coal, oil, or natural gas. For example, regulations were relaxed to make it easier for coal companies to engage in the coal mining approach known as mountaintop removal, in which mountaintops are literally blown into nearby valleys to more readily reach subsurface coal deposits. DOE spokespeople, in addition to those from other agencies in the Bush administration, denied the impact of global warming, which is caused in large part by burning oil and coal, despite the opinions of the scientific community.

The Department of Energy has been plagued by continually shifting policies, making it difficult to construct a long-term approach that would provide for reliable sources of energy at a reasonable cost. In addition to numerous policy swings, the DOE’s leadership has often been short-lived. Most secretaries have served no more than two years before moving on to other positions, further complicating issues of policy continuity. Started in an era of perceived energy scarcity, the DOE rarely addressed the question of U.S. energy needs in a broad-based way that included conservation.

During the late 1970’s and during the 1980’s, the DOE was forced to devote a good deal of money and attention to cleaning up problems within the nuclear arms complex, some of which had existed since World War II, further diluting its efforts. At times, DOE policies have clearly favored the energy industry. At other times, efforts were made to rein in industry and to protect consumer interests or deal with environmental issues. Energy consumers were often ignored after Carter left office.

The Energy Information Agency provides a good deal of reliable information concerning energy consumption and supply of use to a variety of businesses. In addition, the DOE summer fellowship program for undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences and mathematics encourages able students to pursue study and careers in energy-related fields.

Further Reading
  • Fehner, Terrence R., and Jack M. Hall. Department of Energy, 1977-1994: A Summary History. Oak Ridge, Tenn.: Department of Energy, 1994. Detailed coverage of the DOE from its inception to 1994, albeit with little analysis.
  • Kraft, Michael E., and Sheldon Kamieniecki, eds. Business and Environmental Policy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. Collection of essays, several of which emphasize that business often has had a large impact on energy policy.
  • Macfarlane, Allison M., and Rodney C. Ewing, eds. Uncertainty Underground. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Essays from several different perspectives concerning the development of the high-level nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain.
  • Morgenstern, Richard D., and Paul R. Portney, eds. New Approaches on Energy and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 2004. Good analysis of several potential futures for energy policy and the role of the DOE in developing policy.
  • Rosenbaum, Walter A. Environmental Politics and Policy. 7th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 2008. Puts energy policy and the Department of Energy in the larger context of U.S. environmental policy.

Coal industry

Energy crisis of 1979

Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Department of the Interior

Nuclear power industry

Petroleum industry

U.S. Presidency

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