President-elect Donald Trump picked Rick Perry to head the Energy Department on Wednesday, seeking to put the former Texas governor in control of an agency whose name he forgot during a presidential debate even as he vowed to abolish it.
Perry, who ran for president in the past two election cycles, is likely to shift the department away from renewable energy and toward fossil fuels, whose production he championed while serving as governor for 14 years.
His nomination – announced officially by Trump’s transition team a day after sources leaked the decision – stirred further alarm from environmental groups and others worried that the Trump administration will roll back efforts to expand renewable energy and give a powerful platform for officials questioning the scientific consensus on climate change.
The Energy Department was central to the 2011 gaffe that helped end his first presidential bid. Declaring that he wanted to eliminate three federal agencies during a primary debate in Michigan, Perry then froze after mentioning the Commerce and Education departments. “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”
Later during the debate, Perry offered: “By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago.”
Speaking to reporters once the event was over, he said, “The bottom line is I may have forgotten energy, but I haven’t forgotten my conservative principles, and that’s what this campaign is really going to be about.”
Despite its name, most of the Energy Department’s budget is devoted to maintaining the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads and to cleaning up nuclear waste at sites left by military weapons programs. The department runs the nation’s national laboratories, sets appliance standards and hands out grants and loan guarantees for basic research, solar cells, capturing carbon dioxide from coal combustion and more.
Four years after his first Oval Office bid, the former governor sought it once again in the big Republican field that included Trump. Perry touted the high rate of job growth and the low tax rate his state enjoyed under his leadership. At one point, he dismissed Trump’s campaign as a “barking carnival act.”
The child of a cotton farmer and county commissioner from west Texas, Perry immersed himself in politics from a young age. He was elected as a Democrat to the state legislature but switched to the GOP when he ran for Texas agriculture commissioner.
As governor, he recruited out-of-state firms to Texas. In 2013, he starred in an ad that aired in California in which he declared that companies should visit his home state “and see why our low taxes, sensible regulations and fair legal system are just the thing to get your business moving. To Texas.”
Salo Zelermyer, who served as a senior counsel at the Energy Department’s general counsel’s office under President George W. Bush and is now a partner at the Bracewell law firm, said Perry has proven “it is indeed possible to successfully balance appropriate environmental regulations with domestic energy production and use.”
“During his time in office, Perry embodied the type of ‘all of the above’ approach to U.S. energy production that many have advocated on both sides of the aisle,” Zelermyer said. “Rick Perry’s Texas was not only a world leader in oil and gas production; it was also a global leader in wind power and renewable energy investment. This approach is a big reason Texas experienced such enormous job growth during Perry’s tenure.”
But environmentalists take a dim view of Perry. The former governor has repeatedly questioned scientific findings that human activity is helping drive climate change. In 2011 during a presidential debate, he compared the minority of scientists who challenged this assumption to 17th-century astronomer Galileo, who was persecuted by the Catholic Church after suggesting that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the reverse.
“The science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense,” Perry said at the time. “Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”
In his 2010 book, “Fed Up!” Perry described the science showing that climate change was underway and caused by humans as a “contrived phony mess,” writing that those who embraced this idea “know that we have been experiencing a cooling trend, that the complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists, and that draconian policies with dire economic effects based on so-called science may not stand the test of time.”
“Al Gore is a prophet all right, a false prophet of a secular carbon cult, and now even moderate Democrats aren’t buying it,” he added, referring to the former vice president and environmentalist. Gore met with Trump recently to discuss climate change.
Later, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Perry said, “There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
In fact, the top 10 hottest years on record have all been since 1998, and 2016 is expected to be the hottest year since formal record-keeping began in 1880. The 2014 summary report for policymakers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was endorsed by officials from nearly 200 countries, stated, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic [human caused] emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.”
“There is no doubt that Rick Perry is completely unfit to run an agency he sought to eliminate – and couldn’t even name. Perry is a climate change denier, opposes renewable energy even as it has boomed in Texas, and doesn’t even believe CO2 is a pollutant,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a statement. “Not only that, he is deep in the pocket of Big Polluters, who have contributed over $2.5 million to his presidential campaigns, a disturbing sign that they expected him to protect their profits in office, not do what’s best for the American people.”
Bill Richardson, who was energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, said that Perry was a deal maker, political presence and good manager, and therefore a “sensible choice.” But he said that “my big concern is that he’s too tied to the fossil fuel industry and because of Donald Trump’s positions he will try to dismantle the very valuable renewable energy and climate change programs and policies that are a huge part of the DOE.”
Wind power did expand under Perry during his tenure in Texas – from 200 megawatts in 2000 to 14,098 megawatts in 2014, according to the American Wind Energy Association – and he supported the construction of transmission lines nearly a decade ago that helped bring wind-generated electricity to market.
“He created an environment conducive to economic investment through robust infrastructure and competitive power markets that allowed new technologies to enter,” said Tom Kiernan, the chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association, in a statement. “The Texas model under Gov. Perry’s leadership enabled the growth of low-cost wind energy that made the grid more diverse and reliable while saving consumers money.”
“The fact that Gov. Perry refuses to accept the broad scientific consensus on climate change calls into question his fitness to head up a science-based agency like DOE,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But, he added, as governor Perry “increased the ambition of the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, directed state funds to innovative wind energy R&D initiatives, and created a ‘Competitive Renewable Energy Zone’ that helped expand transmission of renewables, bringing clean wind energy from rural communities to new state markets.”
However during a 2015 Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines, the former governor said he opposed extending the federal tax credit for wind power. “I do if a state wants to do it,” he said. “I don’t at the federal level. I think all of these need to be looked at, whether it’s oil and gas, whether it’s the wind side, whether it’s the [Renewable Fuel Standard program] – I think all of them need to be put on the table, prove whether or not these are in fact in the best interest of this country.”
Referring to renewable sources, Jennifer Layke, the World Resources Institute energy program director, said: “The Department of Energy leads essential programs that drive innovation and fill important gaps to get new technologies off the ground. These are vital to keep the U.S. at the frontier of energy technology. In recent years, the Department of Energy has given U.S. businesses a significant boost to accelerate the development of battery storage, solar panels and electric vehicles. These programs must continue.”
Perry sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the firm that is trying to complete work on the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Great Plains. Under President Barack Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers recently decided to withhold a key permit from the company that is needed to finish the oil pipeline. The pipeline has drawn protests from activists who say that segment of the pipeline would disturb American Indian burial grounds and pollute the drinking water of the nearby Indian reservation. The Energy Department has not played a role in that decision-making process, however, and Trump has indicated he would allow the project to move forward once he takes office.
The Energy Department Perry would take over has changed substantially since its creation in 1977 under President Carter on the heels of the oil crisis that struck after the Arab countries of OPEC imposed an embargo on the United States. In the 1970s, the agency focused on weapons maintenance and regulations. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons research took center stage. In the 1990s, arms control and anti-proliferation took priority.
But the last two secretaries, physicists Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, have moved laboratories and other energy programs toward finding ways to slow climate change. The much derided loan and loan guarantee program – which stumbled with a half billion loss linked to solar panel maker Solyndra – has as of September had issued $31.98 billion in loans and loan guarantees for 30 projects, which have leveraged $50 billion in total project investment and created or saved 56,000 jobs. More than $1.65 billion in interest payments have already been paid.
Moniz also used his knowledge of physics and nuclear weapons, and the department’s national laboratories to play a key role in talks aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Perry brings lacks that knowledge.
If confirmed, Perry would walk into an agency where many career civil servants are likely to be wary of him, not only because of his past pledge to abolish the department. Employees there are already on edge, given the fact that Trump’s transition team gave a questionnaire to DOE officials asking that they identify which employees have worked on either international climate negotiations or domestic initiatives to cut carbon.
Current DOE leaders have declined to provide any individual names of employees to Trump transition team members.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration needed to resist “what certainly could have been an attempt to target civil servants, career federal government employees … who are critical to success of the federal government’s ability to make policy, and their work transcends the term of any one president. That’s by design.”
“Our principle – this is principle that presidents of both parties have long abided by – is that we should observe the protections that are in place, that ensure that career civil servants are evaluated based on merit, and not on politics,” Earnest added, before tweaking Trump for his latest Cabinet pick. “And I’m sure the president-elect used the same kind of criteria when choosing his new Department of Energy Secretary as well. Don’t you think?”
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz contributed to this report.
Video: Former Texas governor Rick Perry has been picked to head the Energy Department. Here’s what you need to know about him. (Bastien Inzaurralde, Julio Negron/The Washington Post)