The Department of Energy, the 12th Cabinet-level department, was established in 1977 during the Carter administration. The department’s mission was to oversee the development and testing of the country’s nuclear weapons and coordinate the various, loosely organized energy programs established by the federal government.

Until the 1970s, the government took a relatively hands-off approach to energy production and policy, but the energy crisis of the mid-1970s changed all of that. The Department of Energy was created to address the problem and develop a comprehensive national energy plan that included nuclear energy technology.

Key Takeaways

  • The Department of Energy is responsible for managing the United States’ nuclear weapons program and carrying out energy policy.
  • The Cabinet-level department was first established in 1977 under the Carter administration, in response to the energy crisis of that decade.
  • The secretary must be appointed by the president and then confirmed by the Senate before being officially sworn in.
  • The current secretary of energy is Jennifer Granholm.

The Current Secretary of Energy

In December 2020, then-President-elect Joe Biden nominated former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm as the country’s 16th secretary of energy. She was confirmed on Feb. 25, 2021, and sworn into office later that day.

Granholm was preceded by Texas businessman Dan Brouillette as the country’s 15th secretary of energy. He had served since December 2019. Prior to that, he was the deputy secretary of energy from August 2017 to December 2019.

Choosing a Secretary of Energy 

As with all Cabinet-level positions, the secretary of energy is appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and serves at the president’s discretion. Each president takes his own approach—some make political appointments, while others choose candidates based on particular knowledge in the fields of science and energy. Some are chosen for their executive experience in managing other government agencies. For example:

  • James Schlesinger, the first secretary of energy, was an economics Ph.D. who originally served under then-Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as a budget director, director of central intelligence, and secretary of defense before being appointed secretary of energy by then-President Jimmy Carter.
  • Federico Peña, then-President Bill Clinton’s second energy secretary, was the former mayor of Denver before being appointed to lead the Department of Transportation and, ultimately, the Department of Energy under Clinton.
  • Samuel Bodman, appointed by then-President George W. Bush in 2005, was an MIT-educated doctor of science in chemical engineering who also served as deputy secretary of both Treasury and Commerce before assuming the top job at Energy.
  • Steven Chu, then-President Barack Obama’s first secretary of energy, earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, where he went on to teach as a professor of physics and molecular biology before accepting the secretary position in 2009.
  • Rick Perry, nominated by then-President Donald Trump, earned a B.S. in animal science from Texas A&M and served as governor of Texas from 1999 to 2015.

The Role of Secretary of Energy 

The Department of Energy is a sprawling bureaucracy, with over 100,000 federal and contract employees and a budget in excess of $31 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2020. The department’s list of responsibilities includes the nation’s nuclear weapons programs, the Navy’s nuclear energy program, energy research and conservation, clean energy technologies, and domestic energy policy. The Energy Department spends more on physical science research than any other federal agency, through the National Laboratories.

The secretary of energy, along with assistants and undersecretaries, oversees the entire Energy apparatus and portfolio. In addition, the department’s mission statement includes “advancing the national, economic and energy security of the United States,” as well as supporting innovative technology to further those goals.

Perhaps most importantly, the secretary advises the president on matters of energy and nuclear security and advances the president’s agenda and policy objectives.

Secretary of Energy Salary

Like all federal employees, pay for Cabinet secretaries is set by Title 5 of the United States Code. Cabinet officials are designated as Level 1 of the Executive Schedule, which carries an annual salary of $221,400 in 2021.

Cabinet secretaries serve at the request of the president. They are not appointed to set terms like appointees to federal boards such as the National Labor Relations Board, where each member serves a five-year term.

Key Points in Secretary History 

The first secretary of energy, James Schlesinger, was a Republican nominated by then-President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Schlesinger was the only person ever dismissed from the position. Hazel O’Leary, who served as secretary of energy under then-President Bill Clinton, was the first woman to hold the position. She was also the first African American to take on the role. Dan Brouillette was the shortest-serving secretary of energy in recent history, lasting just 14 months in the role in the Trump administration. Steven Chu was the longest, serving under then-President Barack Obama from January 2009 through April 2013.