Today in 1977: The Department of Energy is created

August 4, 2016

Today in Legal HistorySummers are typically a slow time for our Today in Legal History series.  The Supreme Court is normally on its summer break, and with little exception, Congress is exceptionally inactive.  Thus, very few Supreme Court decisions are made and few new laws are passed during the summer.

But today marks the 39th anniversary of the creation of “one the most interesting and diverse agencies in the Federal government.”  Which illustrious federal agency can this be?  Why, none other than the U.S. Department of Energy, of course!

The Department of Energy (DOE) was created by the Department of Energy Organization Act, which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on August 4, 1977.  The department was officially activated on October 1 of that year.

Although the act did indeed create the Department of Energy as we know it today, the DOE wasn’t built from the ground up, strictly speaking.  Instead, the act pulled several existing federal agencies together, including the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Federal Power Commission.

According to the DOE’s website, these preexisting agencies fell within one of “two programmatic traditions:” defense responsibilities and “a loosely knit amalgamation of energy-related programs scattered throughout the Federal government.”

The “defense responsibilities” were largely related to nuclear weapon design, construction, and testing, which began with the Manhattan Project during World War II.  These responsibilities transferred from military to civilian hands with the passage of the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, creating the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

The AEC’s almost exclusive focus until 1954 was on nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors for naval propulsion.  After the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, private companies were allowed to gain technical information about nuclear energy production, thereby giving birth to the commercial nuclear power industry.  The 1954 act also gave AEC regulatory authority over the new industry.

The AEC’s increasing regulatory activity along with the energy crisis of the mid-1970s eventually led to calls for enhanced coordination of federal energy policy and programs.  These calls eventually blossomed into the Department of Energy Organization Act that created the Department of Energy.

Having absorbed the AEC, the Department of Energy is naturally responsible for the country’s nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the U.S. Navy, and nuclear waste disposal.  But the DOE is also responsible for regulating domestic energy production from other sources, and energy-related research.  In fact, the DOE sponsors more physical science research than any other federal agency.

With the trend toward favoring renewable energy sources in the past decade or so, the DOE has been focusing more resources on both research into such sources as well as charting an energy policy that drives the nation toward transitioning to using such sources.

Although its role on the national stage may sometimes appear understated, the Department of Energy is one of the most active cabinet-level departments today.