(Courthouse News) Plans to overhaul the Interior and Energy departments are stalled until lawmakers receive more information about the cost-benefit of undertaking such a massive restructuring, a Senate panel told department heads on Thursday.
In March, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing government-wide reform and reorganization of the executive branch.
Susan Combs, a senior advisor at the Interior Department, and Bernard McNamee, executive director for the Office of Policy at the Energy Department, testified on the value of the reorganization before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Thursday.
The consolidations, the officials acknowledged, would affect multiple offices at both departments. The proposed overhaul includes moving the National Marine Fisheries Service from the Commerce Department, where it currently sits, back to Interior.
It would then merge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Oversight and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act would then fall under that merged office’s jurisdiction, the officials said.
The proposal also consolidates the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works programs into the Transportion Department.
According to Combs, this will “increase consistency” in federal policy when it comes to issues like natural resource management.
The streamlining is a boon for the environment, she said. The plan recommends combining cleanup programs at the Interior and the Department of Agriculture into the EPA’s Superfund program.
“Both the Department and USDA would maintain existing compliance, bonding, and reclamation programs for non- [Superfund] sites,” Combs said.
Up to five percent of the 80,000 abandoned mines on public land could require Superfund-level clean up, Combs said and by consolidating the programs at the Interior and Agriculture department, the bureaucratic backlog would free up.
Currently, the Interior Department is made up of ten bureaus. Each bureau manages 61 distinct regions All regions follow different guidelines tailored for their geographical needs.
For example, Region 7, “where the west begins,” Combs said, is an important area because it incorporates New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah; areas that feature public lands with a significant amount of resources like oil and minerals.
The natural diversity there makes it a prime testing ground for the overhaul since there are so many region-specific scenarios.
Interior has monitored consolidation efforts at agency offices in Alaska. The results there have been heartening because the “bottoms-up” approach seems to be working, Combs said.
The head of Fish and Wildlife and the head of Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, for the Alaska regions are “doing it all themselves and creating it all themselves,” she explained.
Whether they’re finding new offices amassing human resources, the region heads are getting feedback from their constituents instead of officials thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.
“We’re asking people what works for them and then we’re figuring out what the cost-benefit is. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service [office in Alaska] recently proposed relinquishing a space they say will save $900,000 to $1 million per year, or $10 million over 10 years. If they move BOEM and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement into that office they’ll save $167,000 a year.”
Combs said this collaboration could work nationally.
“When there are people at the drafting table and they’re excited about it, it carries over [into execution],” she said.
The Energy Department overhaul features a merger between the department’s office on applied energy renewables and nuclear and fossil energy into the Office of Energy Innovation. It also streamlines the department’s environmental management programs and its international affairs staff.
According to Bernard McNamee, executive director the Energy’s department Office of Policy, with the majority of energy infrastructure owned and operated by the private sector, eliminating federal ownership or operation also improves efficiency.
Democrats on the committee, including ranking democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, didn’t seem convinced the consolidation would be the best path forward, at least when it comes to the cost of electricity.
The department’s overhaul of the DOE features what amounts to a “coal mandate,” and appears to raise electricity rates 30 to 40 percent in some areas, she said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, was skeptical too.
A 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office supporting similar restructuring, found the drawbacks outweighed the benefits.
“By bringing various offices together for research and development and to stop looking at energy problems in the silo of the energy resource itself, like coal versus oil or renewable, we can focus on how to solve the actual energy problem. If renewable is best it ought to be used, if fossil is best, it ought to be used. If nuclear is best, it ought to be used,” McNamee said.
The lack of details in the current proposal for the DOE didn’t give Hirono confidence that was the real intent.
Especially, she said, since the administration’s current budget reflects a 66 percent cut to renewable energy programs.