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Rick Perry’s hearing was blindsided by a report that Trump plans to gut the Energy Department

Senate Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing For Rick Perry To Become Energy Secretary
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

When Rick Perry walked into his secretary of energy confirmation hearing this morning, he was all set to make a bold pitch for the Department of Energy’s crucial role in supporting scientific research and developing new energy technologies.

He told the Senate panel that the DOE was crucial in developing hydraulic fracturing technology, which led to a huge oil and gas boom in America. He talked about boosting research into advanced supercomputing in the agency’s national labs. He touted his record in creating a Texas Emerging Technology Fund that made investments in advanced solar technology. “I'm a big believer,” Perry said, “that we have role to play in applied R&D [research and development] and technology commercialization."

And it all rang utterly hollow.

Because just before Perry’s hearing started, the Hill published a report that Trump’s advisers were contemplating truly staggering, multi-trillion-dollar budget cuts across the entire federal government — including Perry’s department. The proposed cuts are based on a blueprint from the conservative Heritage Foundation that envisions gutting or zeroing out many of the Energy Department’s key science and energy research programs in everything from nuclear research to carbon capture for coal:

At the Department of Energy, it would roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

(As a reminder, nuclear weapons make up about 40 percent of DOE’s budget, and would mostly be untouched. Another 20 percent of the budget goes toward basic research and 15 percent toward energy programs.)

The Hill’s scoop completely overshadowed Perry’s hearing. At least five Democratic senators asked Perry about the report — and he was blindsided, clearly unaware that Trump was considering anything like this, and unsure how to respond.

Perry had no idea how to respond to Trump’s rumored budget cuts

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) asked Perry whether he’d go along with eliminating the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (which focuses on research around wind, solar, efficiency) or the Office of Fossil Energy (which is crucial for developing carbon capture technology for coal). He tried to shrug it off, saying “Just because you see something on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true.”

When she pressed, Perry meekly added that he’d try to advocate for these agencies, “but I may not be 1,000 percent successful.”

A few minutes later, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) brought up the cuts again, saying, “It’s hard to see how we can pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ [energy] strategy if so much of the department’s capabilities are eliminated. Do you support these cuts, yes or no?”

Perry made another awkward joke without really answering: “Well senator, maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that.” (This was a reference to the start of his hearing, when Perry expressed regret that he’d once called to abolish DOE, saying he’s learned much more about the agency since.)

Perry was pressed several more times and never figured out quite how to respond. He told Sen. Angus King (I-ME) that “I have a history of protecting budgets from those in the know…” King retorted: “It’s hard to believe the people who proposed these cuts are in the know.”

We could soon see a huge debate over the role of federal energy R&D

National Renewable Energy Lab Tests Green Energies In Colorado
Heather Lammers plugs in a Toyota Prius Hybrid, which was being recharged by a solar energy panel at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) March 3, 2009, in Golden, Colorado.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

What you’re seeing here is the beginning of a potentially big fight over the role of federal energy research — and the role of the Department of Energy — going forward.

Many conservatives, particularly those at the Heritage Foundation, have long believed that the federal government should have no role in promoting or helping develop various energy technologies apart from very, very basic scientific research.

In Heritage’s view, it’s okay for the DOE to fund, say, research on basic nuclear physics (which private companies don’t do). But the agency shouldn’t be working with private companies to demonstrate that a large carbon capture plant can be built (as DOE did in Texas with the Petra Nova CCS retrofit) or providing loan guarantees to budding solar or electric-car companies (as DOE once did with Elon Musk’s Tesla or, less successfully, with Solyndra). Those latter roles should be left to the private sector, so that the federal government isn’t unfairly picking winners and losers.

But there are plenty of energy wonks who flatly disagree with this view. Their argument is that the private sector underinvests in risky new energy technologies that could have a huge social benefit down the road, particularly in tackling global warming. So there’s a real value to having the government fill this gap.

On this view, DOE has an absolutely vital role to play, not just in basic research, but also in applied research, and in offering loan guarantees for risky demonstration projects, and in providing expertise and support to the private sector in commercializing new research. That sort of partnership is what enabled George Mitchell’s private company to develop and refine fracking, and it’s a good model for the sort of advanced energy tech we need to combat global warming.

In his Senate hearing, at least, Rick Perry clearly favored the latter position, arguing over and over that DOE should be involved in developing and commercializing new technologies. To be sure, he’d almost certainly tilt the department’s portfolio more heavily toward oil, gas, and coal than the Obama administration did, although he did say at one point that he’d push to “advocate and promote American energy in all forms, and that includes renewables.”

Teryn Norris, a former White House appointee to the Department of Energy under Obama who strongly believes in a government role for energy R&D, noted that Perry was implicitly rebuking the Heritage view:

The one catch, though, is that Perry isn’t calling all of the shots here. The Trump White House will obviously play a major role in setting Energy Department budgets in the years ahead and, of course, Congress will ultimately set funding levels.

And there’s a strong contingent of Republicans in Congress who support the Heritage approach. Back in 2013, for instance, the GOP House floated a draft appropriations bill that would cut the Energy Department’s budget for renewables and efficiency by half. Would Perry be on board with that? Will he lobby hard to save these various DOE functions? That’s where we’ll find out how strongly he actually believes what he’s saying.

Further reading: Rick Perry: Now that I’ve learned more about the Energy Department, I regret calling to abolish it

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