Changes to Energy Dept. websites downplay renewables as a replacement for fossil fuels

Source: By Chelsea Harvey, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, April 24, 2017

Rick Perry at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination for energy secretary in January. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

The Energy Department is changing its website to cut down on Obama-era language touting renewable energy sources as a climate-friendly replacement for fossil fuels, according to reports from an environmental watchdog group.

Whereas the site formerly touted technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal energy as a replacement for sources such as coal, oil and natural gas, the department’s website now focuses on renewable energy’s potential to create jobs, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a network of academics and nonprofit groups that has been monitoring federal websites.

The reports, compiled by the EDGI’s website tracking team, describe changes made during the past few months to Web pages for the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, Wind Energy Technologies Office and Vehicle Technologies Office, all of which fall under the agency’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — an office that has been targeted for deep cuts by proposed administration budgets. These offices are tasked with the research, development and deployment of renewable energy and sustainable transportation.

Under the Obama administration, these offices’ websites emphasized the importance of cutting down on U.S. carbon emissions and reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels — a message in keeping with President Barack Obama’s push to address climate change.

But with the Trump administration de-emphasizing climate change and looking to promote climate-friendly and carbon-intensive energy sources — an agenda that coincides with a broad attempt to eliminate regulations on fossil fuels and particularly on coal — the priorities outlined on these office’s Web pages have been shifting since the inauguration.

For each of the three offices, EDGI reports a change in the emphasis of renewable fuels or energy sources as a replacement for fossil fuels. On the Vehicle Technologies Office’s “Working With Us” page, for instance, the office’s mission statement previously included the line, “reduce the use of petroleum.” Sometime around the end of January and beginning of February, that line changed to “strengthen U.S. energy security, economic vitality, and quality of life,” according to the report.

Website monitoring efforts at EDGI have been keeping track of the recent changes, using a form of tracking software.

(Environmental Data and Governance Initiative

Similarly, the website for the Bioenergy Technologies Office previously included a line suggesting that its efforts were “helping to replace the whole barrel of oil.” In March, that sentence was replaced with a line suggesting that the office is “supporting the development of bioproducts, which enable biofuels, since the production of bioproducts relies on much of the same feedstocks, infrastructure, and technologies that are central to biofuel production.”

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In turn, the reports note a shift to an increased stress on the economic payoffs of advancing these technologies, also in keeping with the administration’s emphasis on jobs creation.

The Wind Energy Technologies site, for instance, recently added a line pointing out that “wind energy currently supports more than 100,000 U.S. jobs, and wind turbine technician is the nation’s fastest-growing occupation. According to industry experts, the U.S. wind industry is expected to drive over $85 billion in economic activity from 2017 to 2020, and wind-related employment is expected to reach 248,000 jobs in all 50 states by 2020.”

Together, the changes collectively downplay the climate benefits of each form of technology and distance the agency from the idea that they might be used to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, instead emphasizing their economic advantages. It’s a move that’s well in line with the Trump administration’s generally dismissive attitude toward the issue of climate change.

The Energy Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the reasons for these changes. However, these are far from the first changes to be made to federal websites concerning climate and the environment under the Trump administration, nor is it uncommon for incoming administrations to change their websites to reflect the new president’s priorities.

Multiple climate-related reports disappeared from the State Department website in January. And in the same month, employees of the Environmental Protection Agency indicated that the Trump administration was planning to remove certain sections on climate change from the agency’s website, although the administration later backed away from those plans.