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Now that he’s confirmed, Rick Perry has a big decision to make about the Energy Department

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Thumbs up........ for energy research?
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Now that Rick Perry has been confirmed as Donald Trump’s energy secretary, we’re about to find out what he really believes — and what he’s willing to fight for.

Back when he was governor of Texas and running for president in 2011, Perry famously vowed to abolish the Department of Energy (DOE) — an agency with a $32 billion budget that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal and also funds energy research on everything from solar panels to carbon capture.

He’s since apologized for that. “After being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination,” he told a Senate panel in January. During his confirmation hearing, Perry also said he now believes the federal government had a vital role to play in energy R&D — including renewables.

But we’ll see if Perry actually meant what he said. The Trump administration is currently proposing sweeping budget cuts to a variety of domestic agencies, including the DOE. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation are calling on Trump to zero out the DOE’s energy programs, which account for 15 percent of the agency’s budget. That could include killing the Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, which has played a supporting role in lowering the cost of solar power, and axing ARPA-E, an incubator for long-shot, futuristic energy tech.

So will Perry push back against Trump’s cuts? During his confirmation hearing, when he was asked about this, he joked, awkwardly, that he hoped the White House would reconsider. “Maybe,” he told one senator, “they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that.” Later, when pressed, Perry argued that he’d advocate for the DOE’s energy programs, “but I may not be 1,000 percent successful.”

The coming debate over the role of federal energy R&D

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That hearing was the beginning of a potentially major 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 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 strongly 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 critical 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, Perry clearly favored the pro-government 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 believes what he’s saying.

What the Energy Department actually does: mostly nuclear weapons, a little energy

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 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 pollution left behind from the weapons programs of the Cold War era — such as the contaminated soil around the Y-12 National Security Complex 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.

The nuclear weapons and environmental cleanup programs tend to remain fixed from administration to administration — and it will probably stay that way under Trump. 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.

Further reading

  • This report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation is a deep dive into how to bolster and improve R&D programs at the Energy Department. Two key sentences: “Federal funding for energy research and development lags well behind funding for space, health, and defense R&D. Eleven other countries around the world spend more on energy R&D as a percentage of GDP than the United States—and China spends three times as much.”