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October 8, 2010

Three Top Officials Leaving In DOE Management Exodus

In a major management exodus, three top officials at the Energy Department—including Under Secretary Kristina Johnson—are resigning after little more than a year in their positions.

In addition to Johnson, who is to leave the agency this month, Warren “Pete” Miller, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, and Jim Markowsky, assistant secretary of fossil energy, are departing in early November.

Resigning at the end of last month was Matt Rogers, who has served for the past 19 months as Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s senior advisor for implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which provided DOE with $36 billion in clean energy funding.

None of the resignations was publicly announced by DOE. Instead, DOE officials Thursday confirmed the departure of those officials to The Energy Daily by providing internal memos recently sent by Chu to DOE staff.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the memos revealed that Chu has named Cathy Zoi, DOE’s assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, to fill Johnson’s shoes as acting under secretary for energy—another top management change that was not publicly announced by DOE in any press release or Internet posting.

Zoi’s elevation is somewhat unusual in that in past administrations, the DOE deputy secretary—the agency’s No. 2 officials—has typically stepped in on an acting basis for any departing under secretaries because of the broad management responsibilities held by the under secretary.

Johnson oversaw a large swath of DOE’s civilian programs, including Zoi’s rapidly expanding efficiency and renewable energy program; the Office of Environmental Management, which manages DOE’s huge and complex nuclear cleanup program; the Office of Nuclear Energy; the Office of Fossil Energy; and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

Zoi’s appointment also is surprising in that her Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy received the lion’s share of the massive new DOE funding provided under the ARRA—and it has been struggling to effectively oversee the disbursement and expenditure of billions of dollars in recent months.

Among other problems, Zoi’s office has been criticized in internal audits by the DOE inspector general for failing to adequately supervise state spending of ARRA efficiency and home weatherization money. More recently, the IG cited irregularities and possible favoritism in the hiring of a contractor employee by one program office under Zoi’s purview.

Chu announced Johnson’s resignation and Zoi’s elevation in a September 16 memo that thanked Johnson for her service to the department but otherwise provided no details about why she was leaving, saying only that she planned to “return to academic life.”

Johnson took her post in May 2009 after Senate confirmation, and had a relatively low profile in her 16 months at DOE. Some industry and congressional sources questioned her appointment, saying her previous academic posts had not given her the management skills needed to handle DOE’s far-flung and often politically sensitive operations. Prior to coming to DOE, Johnson was the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs of Johns Hopkins University and dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

In regard to Miller’s departure, some industry sources suggested he was leaving because of growing controversy over the department’s handling of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Sources said a key concern may have been that a GOP takeover of the House in the upcoming elections could lead to more aggressive congressional oversight and investigation into DOE’s effort to kill Yucca, which was under Miller’s office. Many critics say DOE’s actions on Yucca are an ill-considered and politically motivated effort by the Obama administration to please Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who strongly opposes the facility’s siting in his home state.

Miller, a nuclear engineering professor at Texas A&M University and previously a longtime Los Alamos National Laboratory executive, took over DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy in August 2009.

In an October 1 internal memo announcing Miller’s departure, Chu praised him for being “at the forefront of the Obama administration’s effort to revitalize the American nuclear power industry,” citing in particular his work in promoting small modular reactors.

Replacing Miller as acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy will be Pete Lyons, a Republican who came to DOE after serving on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Markowsky, previously a senior manager with American Electric Power, took over DOE’s fossil energy program in August 2009 following Senate confirmation. Chu also announced his resignation in the October 1 internal memo, which lauded Markowsky for leading DOE efforts to help develop carbon capture technology deemed vital to the future of the coal, oil and natural gas industries, which are major greenhouse gas emitters.

Markowsky’s tenure was relatively low-key, but he did draw attention—and criticism—from environmentalists for floating an idea in December 2009 to relax certain federal air pollution controls on power plants that were increasing efficiency and also good candidates for carbon capture and storage. Specifically, he proposed that the Environmental Protection Agency might relax “new source review” (NSR) requirements for certain U.S. coal-fired power plants that are boosting efficiency through retrofits if the plants also were well-situated for installation of carbon capture and storage systems. However, Markowsky’s trial balloon quickly popped after environmentalists blasted it.

Chu said Victor Der, a senior deputy in the fossil energy office, will replace Markowsky as acting assistant secretary.

In regard to Rogers, Chu announced his departure in the same September 16 internal memo that disclosed that Johnson was leaving. The secretary said Rogers was leaving because he had made a longstanding promise to his family in California that he would return home by September 30. Chu said he had asked Rogers to join the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board so he could continue to advise DOE on ARRA implementation and other issues.

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