Deputy secretary pick vows action on grid, minerals

Source: By Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, March 7, 2021

President Biden’s pick for Department of Energy deputy secretary breezed through a confirmation hearing yesterday, with commitments to address transmission and critical mineral concerns.

David Turk is poised to receive bipartisan support after lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee appeared to welcome his responses and lengthy energy experience.

“The deputy must be prepared to act for the secretary and perform all of the secretary’s functions and duties in the secretary’s absence and to manage the department’s wide-ranging mission and budget of over $35 billion,” Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said. “I am convinced that Mr. Turk is up to the job. He knows energy issues.”

Turk is currently deputy executive director at the International Energy Agency, a global energy information organization that has been a tool for Capitol Hill and DOE officials alike.

An Obama administration alumnus and Biden transition official, Turk was involved with department efforts in 2015 to launch Mission Innovation, an international push to boost clean energy research and development to complement the Paris climate deal.

Turk spent much of yesterday’s hearing advocating for an all-of-the-above approach to clean energy resources, including a focus on carbon capture technology.

“I’m a firm believer that energy is good; it’s emissions that we really need to focus on,” Turk said in response to multiple questions from Republicans fearing the Biden administration would outlaw fossil fuel development.

Transmission focus

Democrats were much more interested in how Turk would help advance transmission policies at DOE in the wake of rolling blackouts across Texas and the Midwest last month.

“We need to take [the national laboratory] work. We need to work with our interagency colleagues. We need to work with the Congress and really come up with a much more robust game plan for how we deal with these issues,” Turk said.

Transmission policy has emerged as a climate policy hot topic as lawmakers look to build a better foundation to unleash additional renewable energy onto the grid.

Current bottlenecks and the remote nature of some generation sites have limited renewable energy’s impacts on major metropolitan areas, experts say.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, citing the blackouts, has embraced grid improvements as a priority for her tenure.

DOE-backed reports have illustrated the benefits of more transmission capacity and redundancies, but siting and permitting challenges remain.

“We need to work with [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], we need to work with states and locals, we need to work with utilities and make sure that we don’t just have nice reports,” Turk said. “We need to actually move on the transmission side of things.”

Critical minerals, DOE staffing

Republicans also focused on how Turk would approach critical minerals that have become so important for unleashing battery storage and electric vehicles.

“I think critical minerals is a huge opportunity space for the U.S.,” Turk said. “[For one], to get out and improve our national security because we are relying too much on those critical minerals from countries like China, the Congo, etc. We need to work on the full supply chain.”

President Biden issued an executive order to direct federal agencies to study ways to help bolster the domestic supply of critical minerals (Greenwire, Feb. 24).

Environmental groups had complained about Trump administration efforts in the same space for what they deemed streamlined environmental reviews for mining.

In addition to bolstering critical minerals, Turk said DOE employment increases could go a long way to helping the Biden administration reach its clean energy goals.

That includes overcoming a hiring freeze at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Over the past four years, employment in that office has failed to meet its drastic rise in annual appropriations.

“We have a backlog right now, an opportunity to really bring in a huge amount of new talent in EERE, and if I am confirmed, I very much look forward to being helpful to move that along and get EERE fully staffed up,” Turk said.

Turk identified the Office of Policy as another program that could see employment boosts. During the Obama years, Turk said that office was “robust” with “80 or maybe even more people.” Now, he said, “it’s maybe four to five people. It’d been very much shrunk back.

“I think we need to boost that up, so we can think about these transmission issues holistically across the country,” Turk said.