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Energy, Department of


ENERGY, DEPARTMENT OF. The Department of Energy (DOE) became the twelfth U.S. cabinet-level agency on 1 October 1977 under the Department of Energy Organization Act. Its responsibilities fall into three broad categories: energy, research, and national security.

The agency collects data on energy production and consumption, operates the petroleum reserve, and oversees numerous research programs including energy projects and a wide array of mathematics, science, and engineering projects at the national laboratories. The DOE also over-sees nuclear weapons research, production, and ultimately disposal. The energy secretary advises the president on international energy issues and nuclear nonproliferation.

Institutional Heritage

The DOE sprung primarily from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Federal Energy Administration, and the Energy Research and Development Administration. The Atomic Energy Commission was created under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946; it replaced the wartime Manhattan Engineer District, which had developed the world's first atomic weapon. The new commission primarily oversaw nuclear weapons development and testing. However research and development extended to nuclear power reactors as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1953. The oil crisis of 1973 and the increasing need for research on new forms of energy inspired passage of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. This act established the Energy Research and Development Administration, which assumed the Commission's research and development programs.

Before the act was passed, President Richard Nixon had established the Federal Energy Office within the Executive Office of the President to oversee fuel allocation, rationing, and prices. He wanted a cabinet-level agency to assume these roles and work on the commercial development of new energy technologies so that the United States could become energy self-sufficient by 1980.

Nixon signed into law the act creating the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) to replace the Federal Energy Office. The new agency was also made up of several offices formerly of the Department of the Interior: the offices of petroleum allocation, energy conservation, energy data and analysis, and oil and gas. For three years the FEA administered oil allocation and regulated prices. The FEA also had the task of promoting energy conservation.

The enabling legislation for the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) was signed by President Gerald Ford. It came with a wave of legislation encouraging research on renewable energy. The Solar Heating and Cooling Act of 1974, the Geothermal Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1974, and the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1974 charged the ERDA with ambitious research goals.

The ERDA established the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado. It also oversaw the creation of the (then) world's largest operational solar power generator, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In Idaho, the ERDA created pilot projects that used hydrothermal convection to generate power. It also developed a prototype wind-power system in Sandusky, Ohio, and oversaw research on conventional nuclear reactors, breeder reactors, and fusion. All of these activities were added to the responsibilities for nuclear weapons production and waste disposal that the ERDA assumed from the defunct Atomic Energy Commission.

Creation of the DOE

President Jimmy Carter requested the creation of the DOE as his first attempt at reorganizing the Federal agencies. Congress created the new agency with one major change from Carter's request. Carter wanted the authority to set wholesale interstate electricity rates and crude oil prices to rest with the DOE secretary. Congress vested this authority in an independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The enabling legislation reflected the energy and environmental concerns of the late 1970s. The DOE was to "promote maximum possible energy conservation measures" and to give the commercial use of solar, geothermal, recycling, and other renewable energy resources "the highest priority in the national energy program."

The Carter era. President Carter's National Energy Plan had two broad objectives: first, to reduce dependence on foreign oil; and, second, to develop renewable and inexhaustible sources of energy. The DOE proposed energy efficiency standards for new buildings, created the Solar Training Institute, and worked with General Motors to develop prototype electric cars and trucks.

The new agency inherited ongoing investigations into allegations that several oil companies had conspired to overcharge consumers during the 1973 oil embargo crisis. These investigations were ongoing when another oil crisis in the spring of 1979 brought new allegations of price gouging against fifteen oil companies and further DOE investigations. By the end of Carter's term in office, the DOE had collected $1.7 billion in settlements with oil companies.

During the Carter era, the DOE's weapons laboratories developed nuclear warheads for air-and land-launched cruise missiles. The agency invested heavily in nuclear weapons safety research and cleanup procedures. Underground tests of nuclear weapons continued at the Nevada Test Site.

The newly formed agency generated a substantial amount of controversy across the full range of its activities. Some lawmakers immediately attacked the renewable-energy programs because of their high costs and slow production. In the summer of 1979 the DOE revealed that it had miscalculated key oil supply figures, resulting in $9 billion overcharge in favor of the oil companies, at the expense of the consumers. A DOE official admitted that petroleum industry lobbyists had obtained access to DOE documents in advance of public release. In the first two years of the agency's existence the DOE was subjected to over two hundred investigations.

The DOE also had to deal with mismanagement problems resulting from its predecessor agencies. The DOE announced that in 1975 secret documents pertaining to the hydrogen bomb had been erroneously declassified. A DOE official also testified before Congress on the exposure of at least nine hundred people to significant doses of radiation during atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in Nevada and the South Pacific between 1951 and 1962. The DOE identified fifty sites in more than twenty states that were once used for nuclear research and still posed contamination problems for area residents.

The Reagan and Bush era. Early in his first term, Ronald Reagan sought to abolish the DOE. He cut hundreds of positions from enforcement divisions of the agency. Reagan's abolition attempt failed in Congress when a General Accounting Office study revealed that abolition of the DOE would not save any money. Reagan was still able to change the function significantly. The Reagan-era DOE placed a much stronger focus on nuclear weapons production, nuclear energy, and fossil fuels. The Reagan administration cut DOE funding for renewable energy and conservation programs by as much as 80 percent, while it pledged to speed the licensing process of new nuclear power plants. The Reagan-era DOE deregulated the gasoline market. Between 1981 and 1989 the DOE dramatically expanded its weapons production and testing activities. During the previous decade nuclear weapons had been tested once every two years. In the 1980s three nuclear tests were conducted each year. The DOE also began preparations to store high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

During Reagan's tenure a DOE official was convicted of accepting bribes to pass on internal documents to oil industry officials. The DOE illegally provided a $550,000 grant to a contractor to aid in a lobbying effort against Congressional attempts to constrain nuclear testing. Independent investigations by the GAO and other agencies found the DOE lacking in both security and safety measures.

President George H. Bush vowed to improve the safety and environmental record of the DOE. His agency initiated research projects on acid rain and global warming. The weapons labs oversaw the development of nuclear testing methods that did not require atmospheric or underground detonations. Nuclear weapons production fell significantly as the Cold War concluded.

The Clinton era. The new post–Cold War world enabled the Clinton administration to make significant changes in the function of the DOE. The Clinton DOE spent less on nuclear weapons production and halted all underground tests. The DOE created partnerships between the national laboratories and private industry. Where the laboratories were previously focused on weapons production, they now developed research programs on environmental modeling, supercomputing, and the human genome. The Clinton DOE also resumed the development of energy efficiency standards for appliances, which had been dropped during the Reagan administration, and started a public awareness campaign on alternative fuels for automobiles.

In 1995 the DOE published a report documenting radiation experiments conducted by its predecessor agencies from the 1930s to the 1970s that exposed 16,000 men, women, and children to significant levels of radiation. The agency also had to handle the loss of significant nuclear-weapons secrets to China. The chief suspect in this espionage case was the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was set free after a botched investigation. This serious security lapse led to an agency reorganization in 2000 that created the Agency for Nuclear Stewardship, which now answers to an independent chief rather than to the secretary of energy.


Fehner, Terrence R., and Jack M. Holl. Department of Energy, 1977–1994: A Summary History. Washington, D.C.: Department of Energy, 1994.

Fehner, Terrence R., and F. G. Gosling. "Coming in From the Cold: Regulating U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Facilities, 1942–1996." Environmental History 1, no. 2 (April 1996): 5–33.

Gosling, F. G., and Terrence R. Fehner. Closing the Circle: The Department of Energy and Environmental Management, 1942–1994. Washington, D.C.: Department of Energy, 1994.

Hewlett, Richard G., and Oscar E. Anderson Jr. The New World, 1939–1946. Vol.1of A History of the Atomic Energy Commission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Daniel JohnSherman

See alsoNuclear Power ; Nuclear Weapons ; Oil Crises .

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Department of Energy Organization Act (1977)

Department of Energy Organization Act (1977)

Joseph P. Tomain

Prior to the 1970s, the responsibility for energy regulation was spread among a variety of federal agencies, including such cabinet-level departments as the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture. Energy issues also were administered by independent regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Power Commission and the Atomic Energy Commission, which were renamed, respectively, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Complicating energy regulation even further is the fact that individual states regulate the natural resources used for the production of energy through their own statutes, regulations, and case law.

The major impetus for efforts at energy planning and coordination was the "energy crisis" of the mid-1970s stimulated by the OPEC Oil Embargo of October 1973. Congressional concern focused on matters of energy reliability, environmental protection, reasonable prices, economic stability, and national security.

Presidents Nixon and Ford responded to the energy crisis with several initiatives centered predominantly on controlling oil supplies and prices. President Carter introduced his National Energy Act, consisting of five pieces of major legislation supported by the declaration that the energy crisis was the "moral equivalent of war." The National Energy Act addressed a wide range of energy regulation from traditional fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas to conservation and rate design. In an attempt to coordinate all of these activities, Congress passed the Department of Energy Organization Act in 1977 (P.L. 95-91, 91 Stat. 565). In 1980 Congress passed the Energy Security Act, which addressed alternative energy sources from solar power and geothermal to oil shale and tar sands.

The Department of Energy Organization Act was based upon Congressional findings that the United States faced an increasing shortage of nonrenewable energy resources, thus increasing its dependence on foreign energy supplies, particularly oil, and presenting a threat to national security; that a strong national energy program was needed; that energy policy was fragmented in the federal government; and that a national energy program needed to be integrated and coordinated.


The Department of Energy (DOE) was established as a cabinet-level agency with responsibility for information collection, policy planning, coordination, and program administration. To further those goals, the Economic Research and Development Administration and the Federal Energy Administration were abolished, and their powers were transferred to DOE. Also, the Federal Power Commission was renamed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and came under the umbrella of DOE, while retaining its status as an independent regulatory agency. DOE also had the responsibility for various energy regulations formerly administered by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and Department of the Navy, and the Department of Commerce, among others. Established within the Department of Energy were an Energy Information Administration and an Economic Regulatory Administration along with an Office of Energy Research.

The DOE was charged with assisting in the development of a coordinated national energy policy. To that end, DOE is required to submit to Congress a biannual National Policy Plan containing energy production, utilization, and conservation objectives, as well as identifying strategies and recommendations for action.


Historically, the United States has had neither a comprehensive nor a coordinated national energy policy. Several factors contribute to a lack of a national energy plan, including the fact that energy matters are spread throughout the federal government; that the preference for social ordering is the market; and that federalism inhibits coordination. In oil and gas matters, for example, state, statutory, and common law affect exploration and production; and for natural gas and electricity, state public utility commissions affect retail rates and sales.

Moreover, the Department of the Interior retains responsibility for the management of federal lands and resources. Its agencies include the Bureau of Mines which administers surface mining and reclamation regulations; the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers hydroelectric projects; the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for federal lands: and Minerals Management Service, which regulates the intercontinental shelf. The Department of Labor through its Mine Health and Safety Administration regulates health and safety standards for miners. To these federal agencies can be added the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Department of Transportation. Thus, even after the passage of the Department of Energy Organization Act, energy regulation and administration remains fragmented at the federal level.

It is still the case that FERC's administration of the Federal Power Act and the Natural Gas Act involves primary federal energy regulation. FERC has been very active in deregulating the natural gas and electric industries as well as revamping the hydroelectric licensing process.

At a general policy level, the United States has had a dominant model of energy policy throughout the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first. That dominant model largely relies on large, capital-intensive, fossil fuel industries such as coal, oil, and natural gas, and it centers on the production and distribution of those resources as well as electricity. Over recent years, energy policies and proposed energy legislation have recognized the importance of alternative energy sources, conservation, and sustainability. Nevertheless, the mainstay of national energy policy and planning remains fossil fuels.

Perhaps the most important function played by the Department of Energy has been to gather information, particularly through the Energy Information Administration. The energy information is thorough, extensive, and updated on a regularin some instances dailybasis. Information on production, consumption, and pricing is readily available at the DOE Web site through its biannual National Energy Policy Plan, which provides baseline information on energy industries and provides solid data for understanding the history and direction of energy policy and planning.

See also: Federal Power Acts; National Energy Conservation Policy Act; Natural Gas Act.


Aman, Alfred C. "Institutionalizing the Energy Prices: Some Structural and Procedural Lessons." Cornell Law Review 65 (19791980): 491598.

Byse, Clark. "The Department of Energy Organization Act: Structure and Procedure." Administrative Law Review (1978): 9336.

Clark, John. Energy and the Federal Government: Fossil Fuel Policies, 19001946. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Tomain, Joseph P. "Institutionalized Conflicts between Law and Policy." Houston Law Review 22 (1985): 661723.

Vietor, Richard H. K. Energy Policy in America since 1945: A Study of Business-Government Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.


U.S. Department of Energy. <>.

Energy Reorganization Act

In 1974 Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act, which estab lished the Nuclear Regulatory Com mission. Previously, all functions related to the production and regula tion of nuclear power and nuclear weapons were managed by the Atom ic Energy Commission. The Energy Reorganization Act separated these functions, assigning responsibility for developing nuclear power and nuclear weapons to the Department of Energy and responsibility for regu lation of nuclear power plants to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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Energy Research and Development Administration


ENERGY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT ADMINISTRATION. The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) was created by Congress on 11 October 1974 as part of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. The act created two new agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would regulate the nuclear power industry, and the ERDA, designed to manage the nuclear weapon, naval reactor, and energy development programs. Activated on 19 January 1975, the agency attempted to carry out President Richard M. Nixon's goal of achieving energy independence by developing plans, technologies, and conservation programs and by managing national-security activities associated with nuclear energy. Spurred on by the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the agency provided a bridge between the Atomic Energy Commission (1947–1975) and the Department of Energy (created in 1977), which absorbed the ERDA. Despite the brevity of its brief existence, ERDA represented an important step by the administration of President Gerald R. Ford in bringing together diverse energy activities across the federal government. ERDA's focus was reflected in six program areas: fossil and nuclear energy; environment and safety; solar; geothermal and advanced energy systems; conservation; and national security.

Led by Robert C. Seamans, Jr., and Robert W. Fri, the agency produced a series of national energy plans that advocated experimentation and energy leadership to stimulate private-sector commercialization. These plans stressed expanding existing resources and conservation; establishment of a synthetic-fuels industry; and long-range development of inexhaustible energy sources from breeder reactors, fusion, solar, wind, thermal, ocean thermal power, and photovoltaics. While Americans expressed some support for conservation, they responded much more enthusiastically to research into alternative energy resources. Although the agency was unsuccessful in early commercialization of synthetic fuels, it made progress in planning, mobilizing talent, and developing ties with industry and international partners. It created the Solar Energy Research Institute (which became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 1994). Solar power so dominated the national energy discussion in the mid-1970s that, in 1974, three of the five major bills passed by Congress involved solar and geothermal energy. The ERDA also promoted fusion and prototype wind-power demonstrations while executing its continuing responsibility for nuclear weapons production and nuclear waste disposal.


Kash, Don E., and Robert W. Rycroft. U.S. Energy Policy: Crisis and Complacency. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Vietor, Richard H. K. Energy Policy in America Since 1945: A Study of Business Government Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Walsh, Roberta W., and John G. Heilman, eds. Energizing the Energy Policy Process: The Impact of Evaluation. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1994.

B. FranklinCooling/s. c.

See alsoAir Pollution ; Conservation ; Energy, Department of ; Energy, Renewable ; Nuclear Power ; Nuclear Regulatory Commision ; Oil Crises .

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