Back when he was running for president in 2012, Rick Perry called for the abolition of the Department of Energy (or at least he tried to; he famously forgot the agency’s name during a primary debate).
But now that Donald Trump has tapped Perry to lead the agency, and he’s had more time to familiarize himself with its functions — which including overseeing America’s vast nuclear arsenal — the former Texas governor has changed his mind, telling Congress: “I regret recommending its elimination.”
“I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the DOE,” Perry said in his opening statement at his Senate confirmation hearing this morning. “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.”
Now, whether Perry is actually a good fit to lead the Department of Energy — well, that’s what today’s hearing is meant to probe. But everyone’s at least now starting from the premise that, sure, the agency should continue to exist.
The Energy Department mostly deals with nuclear weapons — plus some energy R&D
The Department of Energy is a strange beast, cobbled together from existing agencies in 1977 at a time when oil crises were raging and calls for a national energy policy were in the air. But energy is only a small fraction of what it actually does. Today, DOE’s $32 billion budget can basically be split into four big categories:
- 40 percent, or $13 billion, is dedicated to designing, maintaining, and testing the US nuclear weapons arsenal. Much of this work is done at the sprawling array of national research labs that the DOE operates around the country, like Los Alamos in New Mexico.
- 20 percent, or $6 billion, is dedicated to handling nuclear waste and cleaning up the messes spawned by the nuclear weapons programs of the Cold War era — such as the contaminated soil around Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee.
- Another 20 percent goes toward basic science research in the national labs — things like high-energy physics, nuclear physics, and computing research.
- Finally, only 15 percent is devoted to what we typically think of as “energy” programs, including R&D toward new oil and gas drilling techniques, advanced nuclear reactors, renewables, and energy efficiency. There’s also ARPA-e, a federal venture capital fund of sorts that funds long-shot energy technologies like batteries, advanced wind turbines, and cleaner biofuels.
Back in 2012, Perry’s presidential campaign recommended splitting up some of these different functions and dispersing them among other agencies — a large-scale reorganization basically. The nuclear security programs would be transferred to the Department of Defense. The fossil-fuel and renewable energy programs would be abolished entirely. The national labs … well, it was unclear what would happen to them.
Now Perry’s apparently changed his mind — possibly because he wants the job, or possibly because he’s realized that many of these functions can’t be easily abolished or reorganized.
The nuclear weapons and environmental cleanup programs tend to remain fixed from administration to administration. But the energy programs have changed significantly with each new president. George W. Bush, for instance, asked Congress to prioritize nuclear power and carbon capture and storage technology for coal. Under President Barack Obama, meanwhile, the Department of Energy has greatly expanded a variety of clean energy programs — the stimulus bill of 2009 created massive loan guarantee programs for solar, battery, and electric car companies.
These programs have played an important role in developing new energy technologies. The techniques behind hydraulic fracturing, which has flooded the US with cheap shale gas, were refined with help from the Department of Energy. Elon Musk’s electric car company, Tesla, benefited from an early DOE loan from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program. The agency has also played a supporting role in driving down solar costs with its Sunshot Initiative.
Donald Trump’s transition team, for its part, has generally signaled that it wants to tilt the Energy Department’s focus away from renewables and back toward programs that support oil and gas drilling (and possibly nuclear power). And Rick Perry — who was governor for 15 years of one of America’s most important oil and gas states — seems generally on board with that program.
Perry has a long history of supporting fossil fuels — but also wind
Perry has a very different background from his Obama-era predecessors — Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, and Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist. As governor of Texas from 2000 to 2015, Perry strongly favored expanded fossil fuel production, though he also played a notable role in expanding transmission to bring wind energy from West Texas to population centers in the eastern part of the state.
In his opening statement, Perry was fairly opaque about his energy priorities: “If confirmed, I will advocate and promote American energy in all forms, and that includes renewables. America has been blessed with vast natural resources and the technology to utilize them. I am committed to helping provide stable, reliable, affordable, and secure sources of American energy.”
He also half-disavowed his previous history of climate denial, offering up the same sort of vague shrugging remarks that Trump’s other nominees have been using all week: “I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade activity. [Note: the majority is caused by human activity.] The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs.”
But these are just words. The big question, going forward, is what kind of budget requests Perry will send to Congress — and what Republicans in the House and Senate want to do with the agency. Back in 2013, the GOP House floated a draft appropriations bill that would cut the Energy Department’s spending on renewables and efficiency by half. Would Perry be on board with that? Does he want to change DOE’s programs around nuclear power or fossil energy? That’s the stuff that actually matters.