- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Former Sen. Spencer Abraham, the nominee for Secretary of Energy, has come under fire for having been an advocate of eliminating the Department of Energy (DOE). Fortunately for him, this position is unlikely to hurt him with his former Senate colleagues, for the simple reason that many of them also advocated this position.

As recently as last year, the Republican platform called for the elimination of the departments of Education, Transportation, Commerce, Housing and Energy as part of a general plan to "devolve" power back to local communities. Since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, there have been bills introduced to eliminate all of these agencies, with dozens of co-sponsors.

One would hope that rather than backing away from devolution, Mr. Abraham will continue to push for needed reforms and downsizing at the department. There are still good reasons for abolishing the department and eliminating or transferring its various functions. The Department of Energy has three basic functions. First, it owns and operates about 130 power stations across the United States. Second, it inspects privately owned nuclear and hydro-electric power stations for safety violations. Third, it designs and builds nuclear weapons.

Each of these core functions of the department would be better handled somewhere else. Power stations should be privatized, state governments should handle safety inspections, and nuclear weapons facilities should be turned over to defense. This plan, which has been debated in detail for almost a decade, is simply common sense and good business.

A Heritage Foundation study in 1997 estimated that eliminating the DOE would save taxpayers more than $36 billion between 1998 and 2002. Perhaps even more important than monetary savings, however, is the fact that the Energy Department is simply not up to the job of guarding the country's most important military secrets or ensuring plant safety. The DOE has over the years repeatedly bungled important investigations of alleged spying, it has lost or misplaced highly classified nuclear secrets, the General Accounting Office has taken the DOE to task for poor security at its nuclear weapons labs, and it even has trouble keeping track of military equipment.

Most Americans would probably feel a lot safer knowing that nuclear weapons and nuclear secrets were being guarding by the military, rather than bungling bureaucrats at DOE. Besides which, putting a civilian department in charge of nuclear weapons is about like having the FAA run the Strategic Air Command. When it comes to safety inspections, putting DOE in charge is like getting the fox to guard the chicken coup. The fact is that the DOE has a far worse safety record than any private operator.

The President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiological Research, in a study released in 1993, revealed that the DOE (and its predecessor agency), has repeatedly conducted "tests" that released dangerous levels of radioactively into the atmosphere without the knowledge or consent of the local populations, or local governments. Why would we put an agency with that kind of record in charge of plant safety? I would sleep better at night knowing that the local power plant is under the supervision of local officials, and not federal bureaucrats who have shown such callous disregard for local communities. When it comes to privatization, no one can doubt that private companies can run power plants more efficiently than a massive federal bureaucracy.

The DOE has a number of other functions, many of which are simply duplicative of other state or federal agencies. For example, both DOE and Transportation (as well as state agencies) are responsible for pipeline safety. Both DOE and Commerce are responsible for keeping track of energy consumption. In fact, the Energy Department really doesn't even have all that much control over energy policy. The Interior Department (which controls development of natural resources) and the EPA (which also controls energy exploration as well as regulating power plants and automobiles) both probably have a lot more say about energy policy than the DOE. Energy policy is really found throughout at least a half a dozen various federal agencies.

Rather than a secretary of energy, with his own bureaucracy to lead, it would probably make a lot more sense (after eliminating DOE) to create an Energy czar, whose job would simply be to coordinate energy policy among the various other existing agencies. So Mr. Abraham could still find himself with a job, even if we got rid of DOE. Mr. Abraham should not back away from his criticism of the DOE. He should make the point that rather than being a yes-man for the bureaucracy which comes up to Capitol Hill every year to ask for its latest budget increase, that he will be a different kind of secretary, one who puts the American taxpayer and American security before defending his turf.

That would be a refreshing sort a secretary, the kind we haven't seen in a long time.

Paul Clark is director of the Coalition for Local Sovereignty.

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