The Senate is expected to confirm Rick Perry as secretary of energy following a relatively uncontentious hearing on Jan. 19, at which the former Texas governor vowed to be a champion for all Department of Energy activities. However, Perry’s support has been partially overshadowed by a report that the Trump administration may target DOE for deep budget cuts and program eliminations.
On Jan. 31, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a vote to recommend former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of energy. The vote follows a relatively uncontentious confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, at which Perry leaned on his long experience in the Texas state government as evidence of his qualification to hold the post.
Last week, Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) postponed the vote from Jan. 24 after learning that Democratic committee members had submitted additional questions to Perry. As Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told CQ Roll Call, there were questions about the Trump administration's plans for the Department of Energy, which the Democrats felt Perry had “dodged” during the hearing. However, no senator has signaled any intention to try to block the nomination, and it is likely the full Senate will confirm him in the near future.
Perry expresses new appreciation for DOE activities
As reported in FYI 2016 #155, when Donald Trump first chose Perry to head DOE, it—like many of Trump’s selections—proved controversial. In Perry’s case, the primary objection was that, during his 2011 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he proposed to eliminate the department. However, in his opening statement at the hearing, Perry recanted, saying,
My past statements, made over five years ago, about abolishing the Department of Energy, do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination. If confirmed, I will enter this role excited and passionate about advocating and advancing the core missions of DOE, drawing greater attention to the vital role played by the agency and the hard-working men and women who dedicate themselves in pursuit of these missions.
Over the course of his testimony, Perry expressed further appreciation of all facets of DOE’s mission, including its expansive R&D activities. Perry declared in his opening statement,
I support the academic and government mission of basic research, even when you may not see the results of that for a generation. Our scientists and our labs are the envy of the world. … I have a strong record of aggressively courting leading scientific minds to bring innovation and job creation to my home state.
Later, when Sen. Joe Hoeven (R-ND) asked Perry to support the continued development of carbon capture and clean coal technology, Perry expressed his support for applied research, which some Republican lawmakers do not regard as an appropriate target for federal investment. Comparing applied research with basic, Perry remarked,
With our applied research, we have a lot better idea of how it reaches fruition, how it can be commercialized. … You and I are both strong supporters of federalism, but my life’s experiences are going to affect the way that I operate as secretary of energy, if I am confirmed. And one of those happens to be about investing in the technology that can be commercialized to improve people’s quality of life. … My home state and your home state were virtually changed in a life-changing way with hydraulic fracturing, and that technology had its genesis at the Department of Energy.
Perry also expressed support for technology development projects not connected to fossil energy. He remarked that he shares an aspiration with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that U.S.-developed technologies could be sold to China to improve the environment there. Later, responding to a question from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Perry affirmed that technology development efforts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in Colorado, “will have a role to play.”
When Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) asked Perry to commit to supporting renewable energy programs, he again affirmed DOE’s role, specifically mentioning turbine blade design. He also pointed to his experience in Texas supporting grant programs to fund emerging technologies, and in particular to his support for a program at Texas Tech University in nanophotonics, which has applications in solar energy.
Perry responds to report of proposed budget cuts
The appreciation that Perry expressed for DOE at the hearing stood in stark contrast to a news report that The Hill had published earlier the same day. The report revealed that the Trump administration may be planning deep budget cuts for DOE, alongside other departments and agencies. These plans appear to originate from a Heritage Foundation report published last year called “Blueprint for Reform.”
Among its recommendations for DOE, the Blueprint report suggested eliminating the Offices of Fossil Energy, Nuclear Energy, Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, and Electricity Deliverability and Reliable Energy; the Loans Programs Office; and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. It also suggested eliminating or privatizing the Energy Information Administration, and eliminating funding for any Office of Science research programs aimed toward developing “specific energy sources and technologies.”
The Heritage Foundation is ideologically aligned with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, of which Perry has been a vocal supporter.
Asked by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) about the reported plans, Perry remarked, “I can’t answer whether that’s true or not,” but repeated his view of the importance of DOE in technology development, mentioning exascale computing specifically. He went on,
I will be in the room advocating for these types of things. I’m not going to tell you I’m going to be 1,000 percent successful in that, but I can assure you—and people who know me and who have worked with me know my commitment to making sound science, economic science connected together because at the end of the day they make great economic sense and it makes great quality of life sense.
Later in the hearing, when Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) pressed Perry on the reported cuts, Perry joked, “Well, Senator, maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget they said that,” an allusion the well-known 2011 incident in which he failed to recall DOE when listing Cabinet departments he would eliminate. Asked by Sen. Angus King (I-ME) to commit to being “lionhearted” in his defense of the agency, Perry referred to his history in Texas state government of “defending budgets, both from those who are in the know and sometimes people who don’t understand.”
At other points, though, Perry conceded that he could be forced to contend with more constrained budgets. Responding to a question from Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) about how he would support DOE’s various environmental cleanup activities with a “dramatically smaller DOE budget,” Perry said,
Over the 30 years that I was either a state representative, an appropriator—I was an agency head for eight years, and then I was governor for 14 years … we had budgets that … went up and they went down. We had some really tough budgets in the state of Texas in 1985 and 1987, in particular. I was an appropriator during that period of time. As an agency head, I got to deal with what I was given. I obviously went over and negotiated as hard as I could. … So I’ve had this experience of dealing with budget shortfalls. … But my history is, I know how to manage. I know how to prioritize. … I hope it gives some comfort to know that this is not my first rodeo when it comes to dealing with budget shortfalls.
Asked by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) to push for “adequate funding for [DOE’s] Geothermal Technology Office,” Perry affirmed his commitment to an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, but allowed,
I think that where you and I will probably have a more pointed conversation is [on] the word ‘adequate’. As I shared in my remarks earlier, prioritization and good management of budgets can go a long way.
Perry on climate change and climate research
Another reason why Perry’s selection to head DOE was initially controversial was that he had expressed derogatory opinions about the integrity of climate research in a book he published in 2010 and also during his presidential bid. In his opening statement, Perry offered an updated position, similar to ones expressed by several other Trump nominees in their confirmation hearings, remarking,
I believe climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity. The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.
Perry repeatedly referred to Texas’s program to curb emissions, and to other energy efficiency and “clean technology” incentives implemented during his time as governor, as evidence of his willingness to pursue policies responsive to concerns about climate change. Perry did not directly answer questions by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) about whether he accepts the scientific consensus concerning the predominant role of humans in climate change, and by Sanders about whether he considers climate change a “crisis.”
Cantwell asked Perry about a questionnaire that the Trump transition submitted to DOE officials in December, which, among its other queries, requested the names of individuals who had participated in certain climate-related groups and conferences. Perry replied,
Senator, that questionnaire that you reference went out before I was ever selected as the nominee to sit before this committee. I didn’t approve it. I don’t approve of it. I don’t need that information. I don’t want that information. That is not how I manage.
When Cantwell asked Perry whether he plans “to protect the science research at DOE related to climate,” Perry replied, “I’m going to protect all of the science, whether it’s related to the climate, or to the other aspects of what we’re going to be doing.” Asked again by Cantwell whether he would “protect the scientists and the science budget related to climate,” Perry interpreted it as another question about scientific integrity, replying, “Senator, I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them, no matter what their reason may be, at the Department of Energy.”
Questioned by Heinrich on the more general point of whether he would “commit to using science as your guide when making policy at DOE?” Perry replied, “Relying upon data, when people’s lives are in jeopardy, was one of the things that I became very well known for [as governor of Texas].” He pointed to his reliance on scientific opinion to prepare for the impacts of Hurricane Rita in 2005, which ultimately proved to be not as devastating as scientists had feared.
Perry on nuclear security
Perry faced few questions about DOE’s currently $12.5 billion-per-year mission to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile. However, asked by Franken whether he is “open to altering the pace and scope of the current modernization plans if it is clear that significant taxpayer savings can be achieved while still meeting the deterrent requirements,” Perry demurred, saying he regards it as the role of the Congress to set policy on the issue. Franken replied that in his new role Perry “may have an influence on this debate.”
Franken then asked Perry to be an advocate within the Trump administration for retaining the recent nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran, which Ernest Moniz, the previous energy secretary, helped negotiate. Trump has said he would scrap the deal. Perry again demurred, saying he had not yet “had a classified briefing” on the subject, but added that “nonproliferation is a good thing” and that “all of us can say that we want the Iranians to live up to the deal.”
Sanders asked Perry whether he agrees it would be politically dangerous to resume the testing of nuclear weapons. Perry replied that he would rely on DOE scientists’ “observations of whether there is clear technical ability [without testing] to use the technology that we have today,” and added, “I think anyone would be of the opinion that if we don’t ever have to test another nuclear weapon, that would be a good thing, not just for the United States but for the world.”
Heinrich asked Perry about reports that the Trump administration was going to insist on National Nuclear Security Administration Director Frank Klotz stepping down on Inauguration Day with no successor in waiting. Perry replied that he wanted Klotz to stay on, but that the decision now rested with Trump. Later in the day, reports surfaced that Trump’s team had asked Klotz to remain, at least for the time being.
Perry on nuclear waste and energy
Questioned on his views by committee members both supportive of and hostile to DOE’s longstanding proposal to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Perry declined to take sides. However, replying to a question from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Perry did declare that “the time of kicking the can down the road on dealing with this issue, my goal will be that those days are over.” He further said, in response to Flake and others, that he would draw on his experience as a political mediator to engage stakeholders in order to examine “alternatives” and “find both the interim and the long-term storage answers to this extremely difficult situation.”
The subject of nuclear energy arose several times during the hearing, but only briefly each time. Perry expressed his support for the sector, as well as his support for the development of small modular reactors.