20 Years Ago: 5-3-93 — VP Al Gore fires Will Happer from Energy Dept. for ozone, climate skepticism

“I think there has been an exaggeration of the dangers of ozone depletion and climate change,” Happer told the House subcommittee, making clear the distinction between his opinions and official administration policy.”

The new report is below.


May 3, 1993, Inside Energy/with Federal Lands

William Happer Jr., the outgoing director of energy research, was fired after a dispute with Vice President Gore’s office over the need for better measurements of the effects of ozone depletion, sources said last week. Happer was fired after he argued with an aide to Gore while attempting to get the vice president’s approval for new instrumentation designed to measure ultraviolet radiation at the Earth’s surface.

Sources said that shortly after the argument, Happer was informed he would be replaced. Martha Krebs, associate director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, is expected to be nominated by the White House to replace Happer.

In an interview last week, Happer declined to confirm the reports. While not denying that the issue contributed to his departure, he would only say he was leaving because Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary “would like to have her own team.” He did acknowledge that he hadn’t resigned, adding that he had not been asked to do so. Gore’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

Happer referred to his plan for new ultraviolet instrumentation during an appearance before the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water last week. He said measurements of the amount and types of ultraviolet light reaching the ground have been neglected, and “what little data we have shows very little change and if anything, a slight decrease” in the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface.
Scientists recently have begun to question whether the extent of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere is as great as they originally feared. Ozone acts to absorb cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Responding to earlier evidence that the ozone layer has been thinning rapidly in recent years, most nations have agreed to phase out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons by the year 2000.

But Happer downplayed the danger caused by the thinning of the ozone at last week’s hearing. He pointed out that the amount of ultraviolet radiation received by an individual doubles from the northern to the southern latitudes of the United States, and that by comparison, ozone depletion may be responsible for a variation in the amount of radiation reaching the Earth of no more than a few percent.

Happer also indicated he is at odds with the vice president’s views on global warming, maintaining that further scientific evidence of the phenomenon is needed before mitigating measures are implemented. “As an individual, I think there has been an exaggeration of the dangers of ozone depletion and climate change,” he told the subcommittee, making clear the distinction between his opinions and official administration policy.
He told the appropriations panel that the role of clouds in global climate change still isn’t understood, and said DOE is now in the midst of a “major initiative” to improve that knowledge.

Scientists still disagree over whether increased levels of carbon dioxide will be harmful or beneficial, he said, adding that in terms of geological time, the atmosphere’s current fraction of carbon dioxide is very small. Even when carbon dioxide levels were much higher, the Earth “was a reasonable place to live,” he argued.

Happer said he would have liked to remain on at DOE for awhile, in large part to shepherd the Superconducting Super Collider through this year’s budget process. He said he is “very worried” about the prospects for SSC, which he said he supports not just because it is good science but also because he feels the United States needs to follow through on its commitments to the international scientific community.

“This feckless, on-again, off-again behavior of government is something I don’t like at all,” he said, referring to the annual effort by SSC opponents in Congress to kill the project. He said that he would have resigned had he felt the Clinton administration wasn’t sufficiently behind SSC. In fact, he asserted, the White House is strongly supportive of SSC.
Happer said he is also concerned about the “vulnerability” of basic science in general, in light of the recent trend to move more federal resources into applied research. He complained of “people in Washington who think they know everything about technology policy” who are arguing that “all you have to do is kill off basic research and put the money into applied research.” Those same people, he added, “don’t even know how to change the oil in their cars.”

Happer blamed the trend on Congress, rather than the administration, and called it a bipartisan effort. He said it resulted from a “general mood of malaise” and a feeling that “we ought to try something” to improve the nation’s economic competitiveness.

The focus on applied research, he said, threatens DOE’s basic research budget, as well as that of the National Science Foundation. Happer said he doesn’t object to doing more applied research in federal agencies, but not at the expense of basic r&d.

Happer said he had hoped to make some more progress on cutting costs at the labs before he left the agency. “We go overboard on oversight,” he said, citing as an example a $ 25 million annual cost of operating a research reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory. A comparable reactor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he noted, costs just $ 5 million a year.

Contributing to the steep cost of the BNL reactor, he said, is a payroll that includes a 16-person training staff to train three to four reactor operators.

Yet another concern as he departs is how DOE will “manage the mortgages” for all the new research facilities it now has under construction. Happer said that construction of the Advanced Neutron Source, a $ 2.7 billion research reactor which is to be located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, should have been delayed by a year or two.

He also questioned whether the “B-factory,” a high energy physics facility which is to be built either at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center or Cornell University, should have been given the green light for construction next year given all the other high energy physics facilities now under construction. These include SSC, the main injector at Fermilab, and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven, a facility he called “high energy physics under the disguise of nuclear physics.”

3 thoughts on “20 Years Ago: 5-3-93 — VP Al Gore fires Will Happer from Energy Dept. for ozone, climate skepticism”

  1. That is not the case. Would Happer have predicted the melting of Arctic ice? Extreme weather?

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