In Defense of the Department of Energy (Sort of)

Written by Eli Lehrer on Friday November 11, 2011

Before he famously stumbled in the debate earlier this week, Rick Perry said he would eliminate the Department of Energy. Ron Paul agrees. Any time one sees a bunch of libertarian minded people in a room together (heck, even libertarian-leaning liberals) the Department of Energy often ends up on the theoretical chopping block.

Even the Clinton administration considered doing away with it. And there's a lot wrong with the department. As I (and lots of others) have said before, much of what the Department of Energy does is, indeed, better done by the states, other federal agencies or the private sector.

That said, Ron Paul and Rick Perry's plans to do away with the department entirely and zero out its budget are seriously flawed and, in fact, impossible. Roughly half of the DOE budget is devoted to nuclear materials safety, security and cleanup. Although some of the nuclear cleanup costs might be passed on to private sector entities in ways they currently aren't, there's little if any prospect that these activities could be assumed by anybody but the federal government. Such tasks are an obvious core part of the federal government's national security role.

Another 10 percent or so of the Department of Energy budget, furthermore, goes to basic research dedicated to elucidating fundamental scientific principles with no particular commercial or practical aim in mind. This type of work, by definition, is never done by private-profit making firms but it is absolutely necessary to assure the progress of science. Science classes at all levels, after all, are devoted to teaching students the way that nature works; not, for the most part, the direct application of these findings.

Particularly in the energy field, where a lot of the most important research requires big capital investments, it's difficult to imagine states carrying out this type of work on their own. In any case, does it really seem like a good idea to dismantle the path-breaking national labs that do so much basic research and replace them with nothing?

The bottom line for a libertarian willing to look at the facts is pretty simple: getting rid of the Department of Energy is, indeed, a pretty good idea. Somewhere around 40 percent of its budget is devoted to product development efforts that should be done in the private sector, limited purpose social welfare programs that private charities could do better, and administrative overhead that could be eliminated without anybody noticing. But the idea of zeroing out its budget entirely is hugely impractical and demonstrates nothing more than ignorance of the way government actually works.