December 04, 2008

Remodeling the U.S. Government for Energy Security: Initial Findings from the Big Energy Map

In a speech on November 18, 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama defined the nation’s energy posture as an economic, strategic, and environmental vulnerability and reaffirmed campaign promises that his administration would place a high priority on improving the nation’s energy security.

The President-Elect outlined the main elements of a strategy to stem the risks of climate change and shift the nation away from geostrategic energy supply vulnerability. In keeping with his campaign speeches, his vision centered on:

  • Innovation – in basic research into alternative and renewable fuels, end-use technologies, and propagation and commercialization of science and technology.
  • Job creation – “green jobs” can be an important part of the economic recovery and address the nation’s energy and environmental challenges at the same time.
  • International cooperation – especially in accomplishing climate change agreements.
  • Partnership – focused on the private sector, states, and Congress.

An underlying theme in President-Elect Obama’s remarks was the important role the federal government has to play in catalyzing this energy transformation, both through the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the federal agencies (in cooperation with Congress). The EOP and agencies, however, are not now well positioned to play that role. This paper offers some initial observations and recommendations about possible structural shifts the new administration could make to improve the ability of U.S. government personnel to fulfill the President-Elect’s vision.

First, presidential leadership will be indispensable to a transformative energy policy, and there are two ways the President Elect should consider reifying his vision. The first is to produce a national energy security strategy, which could provide crucial, unifying goals for the federal agencies, private actors, and the American public. The first iteration of this strategy should be a directional or “go west” document within the first 100 days in office, with a more detailed strategy to follow after extensive consultation.

The second Presidential act could be to identify an office within the EOP to develop and implement the President’s strategy. The role of the EOP now in making energy policy and coordinating federal agencies is spread across the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Economic Council, the National Security Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. Climate Change Science and Technology Programs. The President-Elect should consider either designating a lead office within the EOP (we suggest as part of the NSC) or creating a new National Energy Security Council. This new structure would draft the national energy strategy; coordinate agency implementation of the strategy; coordinate partnerships with Congress, the private sector, and other countries; and support direct presidential action, such as participation in head-of-state level international negotiations. This office, whether it is a reinvigorated existing office or a new creation akin to the NEC and NSC, should be structured to address key management needs – such as strategy and policy, implementation, and partnerships. It should also focus on coordinating and implementing strategy on key policy issues essential for transformation – such as energy innovation, climate change science and technology, and international negotiations. The new administration may also wish to consider creating a President’s Energy Security Advisory and Oversight Board, which would be structured similarly to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (formerly the PFIAB).

The effectiveness of a new or reinvigorated EOP office will depend on its ability to leverage, consult, and cooperate with the federal agencies. In turn, the federal agencies in most cases lack the infrastructure to participate in a whole-of-government, national strategy. Many agencies need to develop or elevate policy planning offices or internal collaboration hubs. The Department of Transportation, for example, has a Climate Change Coordinating Council that coordinates the climate change-related activities of all of its internal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In some cases, however, agencies may need more than a reach-back capability for executive and interagency cooperation. In particular, the Department of Energy is in need of restructuring. It may be worth, for example, considering realigning the missions and roles of the DOE National Laboratories using a process similar to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) used for military facilities. The Department of Defense, as a major national consumer of energy, carries special weight in the federal system and merits special treatment. Finally, new initiatives such as a cap and trade program for greenhouse gas emissions and a consolidated National Climate Service could help the nation deal with climate change.

Ultimately, the most important element in harnessing the power of the federal government to achieve energy security will be people – the President himself, but also the people of the EOP, the federal agencies, and Congress, and the relationships among them. We believe, however, that a strategy and structural upgrade can help create the conditions in which people will succeed.


  • Christine Parthemore

  • Sharon E. Burke

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