Trump team's 'intrusive' memo alarms federal climate scientists

Seeking the names of employees who attended climate change talks 'feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list,' said an employee with the Department of Energy.

Matthew Brown/AP/File
A pump jack for oil extraction stands near New Town, N.D., Feb. 25, 2015.

Donald Trump’s transition team has sent a list of 74 questions to the Energy Department (DOE), asking, among other things, for the identity of all employees and contractors involved in international climate meetings and domestic attempts to cut carbon emissions.

The questionnaire specifically asked for the names of all DOE employees who attended the United Nation’s annual climate talks for the past five years, employees who helped develop the President Obama’s social cost of carbon metrics, and which programs are essential to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

All of which raises concerns that Trump’s administration will target employees involved in Obama-era policies that the president-elect spent his campaign promising to dismantle, including the Paris Climate Agreement, Clean Power Plan, and various other DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

"This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list," said a Department of Energy employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal by the Trump transition team, told Reuters. "When Donald Trump said he wanted to drain the swamp it apparently was just to make room for witch hunts and it's starting here at the DOE and our 17 national labs.”

This is hardly the first clash between politicians and scientists, nor the first incoming President to replace federal employees with more like-minded ones.

But what is different this time, Yale University environmental historian Paul Sabin told the Washington Post, is Trump’s request for so many specific names in an era when people are easily tracked down in "a systematic way."

He said, "What seems unusual is singling people out for a very specific substantive issue, and treating their work on that substantive issue as, by default, contaminating or disqualifying."

Other questions request information about the agency’s loan programs, semi-independent research laboratories, statistics office, how the scientific models used to forecast future climate changes operate, and consequences of fossil fuel use. Several questions regarding keeping aging nuclear power plants online and how to store spent radioactive material suggest the Trump administration has plans to invest in nuclear energy.

“After eight years of the Obama administration’s divisive energy and environmental policies, the American people have voted for a change – a big change,” said Thomas Pyle, who leads Trump’s Energy Department transition team, in a recent fundraising pitch. “We expect the Trump administration will adopt pro-energy and pro-market policies – much different than the Obama administration’s top-down government approach.”

Although Trump’s transition team has not responded to media inquiries, a person close to the transition team told Bloomberg that the questionnaire is intended to ensure transparency into the workings of the agency and Obama’s policies.

So far the request has received serious pushback from scientists who are already worried the new administration will not respect scientific integrity.

“My guess is that they’re trying to undermine the credibility of the science that DOE has produced, particularly in the field of climate science,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford climate and energy researcher, reported the Washington Post.

An Energy official called the questionnaire unusually intrusive, and Sen. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts sent a letter to the president-elect, warning that laying off employees who disagree with his policies "would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce."

Outside observers have expressed alarm. "They're certainly sending an aggressive signal here with some of these questions, and they need to be careful," Dan Reicher, a professor at Stanford University who also serves as an advisor to US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, told Reuters.

"I worry about some of the questions being sent that could unnecessarily alienate key career staff, because they need the career staff and lab professionals to get the daily work done," he said.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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