EIA: a tiny agency with a big role in energy debate

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- As energy increasingly dominates the economy, a quiet little agency in Washington holds the responsibility for tracking the particles that conduct, fuse, blow, heat, combust and convert the earth, wind and water into the energy that makes our society run.

The man behind the quiet data-crunching enterprise is Richard Newell, a Duke University economist and energy enthusiast.

He sits in a glass-walled office a block off the National Mall, between the president who hired him and the congressional lawmakers who hammer his numbers into policy. He visits his wife and two young daughters in North Carolina every weekend, reads massive amounts of analysis and tries to know, always, the big picture about what's going on in the world.

Newell took over Aug. 3 as the administrator for the Energy Information Administration. Utility companies make decisions about whether to build new power plants based in part on the EIA's long-term projections of energy use. The office is responsible for dozens of daily, weekly and monthly reports on all aspects of energy.

It tracks how much energy comes from solar, geothermal and biomass sources. It follows the production and use of coal, natural gas and petroleum. It tracks greenhouse gas emissions.

Its work can shake financial markets and propel legislation.

It does all this, by law, in a nonpartisan, neutral fashion. The only political appointee is the director: Newell.

"Energy is a part of so many aspects of our daily lives, our economy," Newell said last week in an interview in his Washington office. "It's the car you drive. It's when you turn the lights on, drive the kids to school."

"Environmental issues are increasing in attention and importance over the last decade or two," he said. "So I think there's a lot of interest on the part of policymakers and society in how we meet our energy needs in a way that allowed the economy to keep running and addresses environmental concerns. I think we can do all that."

A friendly man with wavy hair and a fashionable beard, Newell sports just enough gray to give the 44-year-old gravitas in the very serious town of Washington. When he smiles, which is often, his eyebrows shoot above his glasses, crinkling his forehead.

The work he does at the EIA, though, is very serious.

"They're not trying to spin the facts," said Ron Planting, an economist at the American Petroleum Institute, an advocacy group for the oil industry in Washington. "They're trying to gather the best data available. From their data you can get a picture of what's happening in U.S. energy consumption."

Energy already pervades nearly every corner of the economy, but President Barack Obama has made renewable energy a central part of his economic recovery program and one of his administration's top priorities. The economic recovery bill that passed last winter contains $80 billion in investments for renewable energy.

In what's likely to become one of the more controversial debates of the coming year, lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates who are shaping climate change legislation also will rely on the EIA's impartial data to mold the nation's energy future.

Newell has the job of offering information without influencing policy. He holds a lot of power.

"The pressure on Richard is to produce accurate data and nonpartisan analysis," said Lincoln Pratson, a colleague and professor of energy and the environment at Duke.

"People have made financial bets as to what oil or gas is going to do based on those numbers," he said, "and when numbers get revised, there are times when people are losing out on their bets."

For the past two years, Newell has served as an associate professor of energy and environmental economics at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. There, he studied greenhouse gases and how different approaches to cleaner energy would affect the world's economy.

Now he can translate that work into action, if not advocacy. The EIA tracks annual emissions of greenhouse gases, and it offers data about future greenhouse-gas emissions and economic impacts to members of Congress as they shape legislation. Newell said he wanted to ensure that analysis was as accurate as possible.

"This is important information to understand where we are on this issue," he said.

Newell's biggest challenge may well be to maintain the EIA's strong impartiality amid all the competing agendas that buffer the agency.

"No matter what the EIA would produce, there would be somebody who would have an alternative view on it," Newell said. "We handle that by being as impartial and analytical as possible. ... It grounds the discussion in reality."

Guy Caruso, who served six years as the head of the EIA under President George W. Bush, said the agency often faced criticism from various organizations that were lobbying for their own interests.

"I'd tell them, 'We can't just plug in what you like as your aspirational goals,' " Caruso recalled in an interview. He paused. "That's a challenge."

Caruso also recalled Congress questioning him as gas prices shot up last year, well beyond what the EIA had expected.

"You're put in a very difficult position," Caruso said in an interview. "There's a lot of second-guessing going on."

RICHARD G. NEWELL

Age: 44.

Job: administrator, Energy Information Administration, an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Energy.

Web site: http://www.eia.doe.gov/.

Education: Bachelor of Science in materials engineering and Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Rutgers University, 1988; master's degree in public affairs from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 1990; doctorate in environmental and resource economics, Harvard University, 1997.

Resume: senior fellow, Resources for the Future, a policy research center, 1997 to 2007; senior economist for energy and environment, president's Council of Economic Advisers, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005; Gendell associate professor of energy and environmental economics at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, 2007 to August 2009; now on leave from that job.

Family: wife, Bonnie Nevel, a freelance writer and editor. Two young daughters.

Home: Chapel Hill, N.C.

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