Trump’s DOE Under Secretary Nominees Could Reshape Department’s R&D Strategy

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Paul Dabbar and Mark Menezes, President Trump’s nominees for the two open under secretary positions in the Department of Energy, are awaiting confirmation. DOE is currently considering reconfiguring the positions’ responsibilities, with potential implications for how the department coordinates its R&D portfolio.

Mark Menezes, left, and Paul Dabbar, the nominees for two key under secretary positions at the Department of Energy, testify at their July 20 confirmation hearing.

Mark Menezes, left, and Paul Dabbar, the nominees for two key under secretary positions at the Department of Energy, testify at their July 20 confirmation hearing.

(Image credit – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee)

On July 20, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider six Trump administration appointments to the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior. Among the nominees are Mark Menezes and Paul Dabbar, whom the White House announced as Trump’s selections to serve as DOE under secretaries on July 11. However, an anticipated reorganization at the top level of DOE has left some uncertainty surrounding what their exact titles and responsibilities will be.

At present, the position for which Dabbar has been nominated oversees both DOE’s Office of Science and its applied energy offices, such as the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. However, DOE has indicated to both nominees that it plans to revert to an earlier structure. This could mean it will transfer responsibility for the applied energy offices to the position for which Menezes has been nominated. Such a realignment would significantly alter how DOE currently coordinates its R&D programs across the department.

Nominees draw on backgrounds in energy sector finance

At the hearing, both Dabbar and Menezes cited their extensive experience in energy sector finance as their primary qualification to hold senior managerial roles at DOE.

Dabbar is currently head of energy mergers and acquisitions at J.P. Morgan. In his testimony, he noted that he has experience with investments and transactions in renewable energy, oil and gas production, nuclear energy, mining, efficiency, and the electrical grid. “As a result,” he said, “I have gained significant experience in energy technologies, supporting both research and development, many of which started in various research laboratories before being deployed.”

He also expressed his enthusiasm for recent advances in research, saying, “In the area of fundamental science, opportunities exist for significant leaps in machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as exascale computing and quantum information science.”

Holding a degree in marine engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy, Dabbar began his career as an officer aboard a nuclear submarine. He has also conducted research at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. More recently, he has served as a member of DOE’s Environmental Management Advisory Board (EMAB).

Menezes is currently vice president of federal relations at Berkshire Hathaway Energy, an investment firm, and has previously worked as an attorney in the energy sector. He also served as chief counsel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee during the period when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was enacted. In his testimony, Menezes emphasized his managerial abilities and experience with wind and solar prototype projects in Texas and technological upgrades to wind projects in Iowa.

Under secretary positions set for reorganization

While both Dabbar and Menezes said they expect a reorganization of their prospective positions at DOE, they testified that they had not been apprised of what the exact bounds of their responsibilities will be. In particular, neither indicated which of them would have jurisdiction over DOE’s applied energy offices, which have a combined budget of over $4 billion.

Both the under secretary positions were established in statute by the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The statute designates Dabbar’s prospective position as “under secretary for science” and assigns it general science-related responsibilities but no direct authority over subordinate offices. The statute leaves the scope of responsibilities of a separate “under secretary” — Menezes’s prospective position — to the discretion of the energy secretary. Within these bounds, different administrations have assigned varying roles to the two positions.

From 2006 to 2009, Raymond Orbach served as both under secretary for science and as director of the Office of Science. However, Orbach’s successor as under secretary, Steve Koonin, served only in that role and reportedly became frustrated with the position’s vaguely defined authorities prior to his resignation in 2011. The position then sat vacant for three years until after Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz renamed it “under secretary for science and energy” and transferred to it authority over the applied energy offices in order to support DOE’s agenda in energy innovation.

Meanwhile, up to 2013, the other under secretary position — often referred to as “under secretary for energy and environment” — had authority over the applied energy offices as well as DOE’s extensive environmental cleanup efforts. Since 2013, it has been called the “under secretary of management and performance,” and has continued to oversee environmental activities.

Menezes said at the hearing that it is his understanding that “on day one” he would assume the responsibilities currently assigned to the management and performance position. He also noted, though, that in the history of the position “it’s the current organizational nomenclature that’s the anomaly.”

Positions central to DOE innovation strategy

The anticipated reorganization at the under secretary level comes as the Trump administration is proposing to limit the department’s efforts in applied research and technology commercialization. In their written responses to committee questions, both Menezes and Dabbar expressed their agreement with the administration’s emphasis on “early stage” research.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asked both nominees about what they would do to not “pick winners and losers in the energy sector.” Menezes replied that his work at Berkshire Hathaway is not about picking winners but rather involves developing “projects where you can [in order] to provide affordable, reliable service.”

In his response, Dabbar said he intends to execute faithfully whatever policies Congress establishes through its appropriations, remarking,

Obviously the administration focuses on basic research and there’s obviously a tremendous amount of basic research opportunities within my potential area. I will execute … on whatever [appropriation] is assigned and I will make sure that that capital, whether it’s in basic or applied, will be spent prudently.

The previous holder of Dabbar’s position, under President Obama, was Stanford University engineering professor Lynn Orr. Contacted by FYI, Orr noted that much of his work had entailed helping to coordinate office-level budget proposals that in tandem served broader departmental R&D goals, such as developing improved materials or better electrical power technologies. He noted that the process was a fluid one, which involved ensuring that DOE coherently adjusted its budgets as the White House and Congress responded with their own apportionments.

Orr also emphasized the under secretary’s role in developing and driving forward DOE’s “crosscutting initiatives” in areas such as grid modernization and exascale computing. He said the under secretary plays a key role in drawing proposals from DOE’s “big ideas summits” and implementing them in new DOE programs. The objective, he said, was to identify and foster collaborative possibilities that would be “more than the sum of the parts.”

Exactly how DOE reconfigures Dabbar’s and Menezes’s positions, and how they operate in those positions, will be elemental to how the department coordinates its R&D efforts moving forward.

The timeline for any change remains uncertain. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has postponed until further notice a vote originally scheduled for July 27 to advance all six nominations under consideration to the full Senate, and August recess is approaching. The Washington Examiner reports that there is no indication the committee plans to move on the nominations before September.

DOE’s third under secretary position, the under secretary for nuclear security, is also the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. That position remains occupied by Frank Klotz and it is not expected to undergo any restructuring.

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