Top Energy Department officials have been taking some pricey trips lately, thanks to outside groups helping to fund their travel to destinations like Bermuda, Taipei, Tokyo, Brussels and New Delhi.
Obama administration DOE officials have taken more than 300 trips since April 2011 that were funded with help from outside groups with the department accepting more than $700,000 for official travel, according to a Greenwire review of agency documents. That includes more than 20 trips with price tags upward of $5,000.
Like other agencies, DOE has accepted gifts from outside groups to fund employees' trips to speak at and attend conferences, take tours of facilities and new projects, and present DOE's work. Sponsors have included influential industry trade groups, foreign governments, universities, nonprofits and other outsiders.
"The Department of Energy carefully reviews all requests for in-kind travel payments from outside organizations to make sure these types of trips are related to an employee's official duties, do not create a conflict of interest, and are in the interest of the government and taxpayers," said a DOE representative.
The trips appear to be in line with government ethics rules, which allow outside groups to pay for travel costs like plane tickets, hotel rooms, conference fees, meals and transportation. The outside money has likely come in handy as budgets and travel costs have been squeezed across the government in recent years.
Accepting travel from outside groups is common among agencies as special interests clamor for face time with administration officials. Earlier this year, Greenwire reported that U.S. EPA took more than $4.5 million to pay for hotels, meals and travel over the past four years (Greenwire, May 22).
Jeff Navin, former acting chief of staff for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, said that with agency budgets now tight in Washington, D.C., government officials must often look elsewhere to pay for travel.
"Travel is really an important part of what the Department of Energy does. In a time of constrained resources, it's vital that you leverage what you can as much as possible," said Navin, now a partner at Boundary Stone Partners, an energy consulting firm. "In better budget times, it was much easier to get approval from your agency to hop on an airplane."
Tom Cutler, DOE's former director of the Office of European and Asia Pacific Affairs, said the outside funding helps the cash-strapped agency do its job.
"[I]n times of inadequate travel budgets, situations where outside funding is made available provides the opportunity to conduct official and often priority public business in the national interest on the margins of the primary purpose of the trip that might not otherwise be accomplished," he said in an email.
Cutler noted that the travel is in line with government ethics guidelines. "There are strict rules regulating how trips with external funding occur but no doubt they can be a resource multiplier for the American taxpayer," said Cutler, who's now president of an international energy consulting firm, Cutler International LLC.
In January 2013, Cutler traveled to Brussels to speak to the European Commission. The European Union's executive body paid $7,140 for his airfare.
Some of the trips have been in the five-figure range.
Take a September 2012 trip taken by Barbara McKee, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for international affairs in the Office of Fossil Energy.
She traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, to speak at an event hosted by a partnership of industry, government and academics that aims to develop fuel cell technologies in Taiwan. The Green Energy and Environment Laboratories of the Industrial Technology Research Institute paid $10,430 for McKee's airfare and $800 for her hotel.
Peter Gross, an operations research analyst in the Energy Information Administration, went to Tokyo in February 2013, courtesy of the Asia Pacific Energy Research Centre.
The regional research organization paid $10,300 for Gross' airfare, about $340 for his food and transportation, and $675 for lodging during the five-day trip. All told, the group paid more than $11,300 to host Gross as a speaker.
In December 2011, the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum shelled out more than $9,000 for airfare, food and lodging for Phyllis Genther-Yoshida -- DOE's deputy assistant secretary for Europe, Asia and the Americas -- so she could travel to New Delhi. The nonprofit group that paid for the trip is aimed at boosting science and technology cooperation between the United States and India.
DOE treks to Great White North to tour oil sands
Like other foreign governments, Canada has gotten in on the act of paying for DOE officials' travel.
The Embassy of Canada spent more than $10,800 for airfare, food, hotels and ground transportation for five DOE officials for a July 2012 trip to Alberta.
The DOE entourage -- which included Christopher Smith, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for oil and natural gas -- went for an "energy study tour" or to tour "Canadian Oil Sands operations," according to records.
Christine Constantin, a spokeswoman for the Embassy of Canada, said the trips allow DOE officials to meet with government and industry officials as well as nonprofit groups in Canada.
"Participants also learn about the environmentally responsible development of Canada's energy resources and initiatives being undertaken to reduce the industry's environmental footprint," Constantin said.
Canada has made no secret of wanting to exploit its oil sands and has pushed the Obama administration repeatedly to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport crude oil from Alberta down through the U.S. mainland to Gulf Coast refineries.
Canadian government officials have visited the United States over the past year to make the case for KXL (ClimateWire, Sept. 10, 2013). The pipeline's approval is in the hands of President Obama and the State Department while DOE has kept its distance from the project (Greenwire, Aug. 23, 2013).
Off to France for fusion
Some of DOE officials' priciest outsider-backed trips have been to Cadarache, France, home to a $20 billion global magnetic fusion project under construction.
Christopher Sizemore, a staff accountant at DOE's operations office in Oak Ridge, Tenn., traveled to Cadarache several times, according to agency reports. For example, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) paid $10,545 for his September 2011 trip to Cadarache, where Sizemore represented the United States during financial audits of the project.
In 2011, Alice Peterson, chairwoman of the ITER financial audit board, also traveled to Cadarache in April that year and to Aomori, Japan, in June on trips funded by the group. The trip to France cost $11,328; the Japan trip cost $12,700.
"The United States has spent millions of millions of dollars on an international project for fusion energy. ITER has probably made a value proposition that it's better to have the American official on site than not," Navin said.
The United States is helping to foot the bills for the troubled international effort to construct the largest fusion reactor in history. China, Russia, India, South Korea, Japan and the European Union are also part of the project in the south of France. It was expected to be in operation by 2020, although technical and funding issues are pushing that date out toward at least 2026.
Some members of Congress have questioned the United States' commitment to the international projects, concerned that they are harming the domestic push for fusion energy (Greenwire, March 4).
Industry trade groups finance travel
Heavy-hitting industry trade associations occasionally pay for government employees' trips, too.
In June 2013, Joseph Beamon, director of DOE's Office of Electricity, Coal, Nuclear and Renewables in the Energy Information Administration, spoke to the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute's environment committee meeting in San Francisco. The trade group paid nearly $900 for his airfare, lodging, food and transportation.
Other business groups would just waive conference fees.
In October 2011, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) discounted $425 in conference fees for James Joosten, a senior energy analyst at DOE. Joosten was a speaker for NEI's annual International Uranium Fuel seminar in Scottsdale, Ariz.
John Keeley, a NEI spokesman, said presenters typically have their NEI conference registration fees halved, which was reflected on DOE's trip report.
"It's not uncommon for a government official that if you're an attendee or a speaker at a conference, that the group pays for your attendance," Navin said. "These are not the sort of the fact-finding junkets that you see members of Congress take during the August recess. These are more conference rooms and PowerPoint presentations."
Click here to read DOE's trip reports on file with the Office of Government Ethics.
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