Rick Perry proposed eliminating the Energy Department when he was a 2012 presidential candidate. | Getty
On a presidential debate stage five years ago, Rick Perry blanked on the Energy Department’s name when trying to include it in a list of agencies he promised to abolish — memorably concluding with “oops.”
Now Donald Trump has chosen the former Texas governor to lead the sprawling department, which oversees the security of the nation’s nuclear weapons and has played major roles in President Barack Obama’s climate agenda and nuclear deal with Iran. Three sources close to the transition confirmed the choice Tuesday.
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Conservatives had favored the former Texas governor for the job, viewing him as someone with management experience who would be willing to question the agency’s status quo. They believe Perry might bring serious reform to the agency because he isn’t wedded to energy programs, such as DOE’s fossil and efficiency offices, that conservatives have criticized as unnecessary, market-distorting schemes.
Trump’s choice of his fellow climate skeptic and former 2016 presidential primary rival comes just a year and a half after Perry described the brash New Yorker as a “cancer on conservatism.” It also arrives at a time of heightened political pressure for DOE, which has a $29.6 billion budget and more than 100,000 federal employees and contractors sprawled around the country.
The conservative Heritage Foundation last month urged the next president to eliminate vast swaths of the department, including all the research, development, regulatory and loan programs that the Obama administration has used to drive advances in green energy, as well as its 700-million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And last week, Trump’s transition team asked DOE to supply the names of all agency employees who had worked on Obama’s climate initiatives, a request that Democrats and former staffers denounced as a “witch hunt.”
Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, also had the Energy Department in his sights during the 2012 presidential campaign, when he called for eliminating it as part of his program to shrink the federal government.
That was the origin of Perry’s “oops” moment in November 2011, when he said during a Republican debate that “it’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the, uh, uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see?” Pressed on whether he could name the third agency, he confessed: “I can’t. Sorry.”
Perry later said the third agency would have been the Energy Department.
That memory hiccup seemed to be the least of his worries in appealing to Trump, whom he had scorched during his short-lived second bid for the GOP presidential nomination last year. Besides likening Trump to cancer in July 2015, Perry called the New Yorker’s campaign “a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued” — a rhetorical assault arguably harsher than the later salt-the-earth attacks that Mitt Romney launched on the GOP nominee.
By May, however, Perry endorsed Trump saying, “He wasn’t my first choice, wasn’t my second choice, but he is the people’s choice.”
Perry, a former Air Force captain, made at least two visits to Trump Tower in recent weeks, which kicked off speculation that he was angling for a national security-related post, such as secretary of Defense. He also met with Trump at the Army-Navy football game in Baltimore on Saturday and visited the Tower on Monday.
He also went to bat for Trump when the real estate mogul drew criticism for going after Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen U.S. soldier, who had delivered a scathing rebuke at the Democratic National Convention this summer. The elder Khan then continued to assail the Republican nominee on television.
“Mr. Khan is the one that went out and struck the first blow,” said Perry in August. “And in a campaign, if you’re going to go out and think you can take a shot at someone and not have incoming coming back at you, shame on you.”
Perry was once a Democrat and even served as Al Gore’s state chairman during the 1988 presidential campaign — a fact Perry found himself defending during his first White House run. “This was Al Gore before he invented the internet and got to be Mr. Global Warming,” Perry told an Iowa radio station in August 2011. (Gore’s later rejoinder: “I don’t know what has happened to him since then.”)
After leaving the governor’s office in 2015, Perry landed a job as chief strategy officer at MCNA Dental, a dental insurance company that had been a major donor to his presidential campaign. Early this year he ran afoul of a Florida ethics law by failing to register as a lobbyist before meeting with Gov. Rick Scott to discuss MCNA’s role in the state’s Medicaid program, as POLITICO reported at the time.
By taking charge of the Energy Department, Perry would be leading an agency often slighted by presidents — for many presidents-elect, including Trump, it’s among the last Cabinet posts to be filled — despite its significant national security footprint. While the agency writes efficiency regulations, runs energy research programs and funds basic science, it’s also the overlooked guardian and caretaker of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
DOE and its network of national labs also played an integral part in the Obama administration’s formulation and defense of last year’s Iran nuclear deal. It has also issued billions of dollars in loans and loan guarantees for green-energy projects backed by companies like Tesla and Google, helping foster a boom in projects such as large wind farms and utility-scale solar power installations — although Republicans have preferred to focus on its $535 million loan guarantee to the failed solar manufacturer Solyndra. The much-maligned program, overall, is now a net profit for the federal government, although many conservatives believe such projects should be left to the private sector on principle.
Nuclear weapons maintenance and Cold War nuclear waste cleanup projects consume about two-thirds of DOE’s budget every year, and Perry is likely to be paired with a deputy energy secretary with a greater expertise in those areas. In addition, lawmakers are expected to restart the long-stalled nuclear waste project underneath Yucca Mountain, Nev. — long bottled up by opposition from retiring Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid — putting the issue back on DOE’s agenda.
During Perry’s White House campaigns he repeatedly called for “energy independence,” along with a rollback of regulations coming out the Interior Department and the EPA.
Almost anyone Trump selected for DOE was expected to shift away from the Obama administration’s emphasis on addressing climate change, and Perry fits the bill. Where Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” Perry has gone even further by alleging a profit motive, asserting that “a substantial number of scientists … have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
While the levers of energy regulation are limited at DOE when compared to agencies like EPA, Perry could slow-walk the department’s appliance efficiency mandates and de-emphasize its research on climate science. Those efficiency regulations account for half of the greenhouse gas reduction targets that Obama made part of his Climate Action Plan in 2013. And there’s no undoing them in one fell swoop: Dozens of rulemakings are involved and would require a massive, years-long effort to go after them one by one.
Renewable energy research at DOE may also take a hit under Perry, even though he presided over a massive boom in Texas’ wind power production fueled by federal incentives — enough that the state’s been looking to sell its excess power across the border into Mexico.
The Heritage Foundation has urged the incoming Trump administration to go even further, saying the next secretary should take an ax to much of the department to “end the destructive role played by the federal government in the energy sector.”
Although many in Congress, including Republicans, would resist overhauling too much of the agency, a Heritage “blueprint” released last month said DOE should eliminate all spending on research, development and commercialization of energy technologies, and put the private sector in charge of managing nuclear waste. It went on to call for getting rid of its programs on green energy, efficiency and energy reliability, and revoking Obama’s mandates that federal agencies get more of their electricity from renewable sources.
The conservative group also said the department should draw down and sell all the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the stockpile that the government has held for decades to guard against foreign-driven shocks to the global oil markets. “Eliminating the government-controlled stockpile will reveal that private inventories and reserves are sufficient to meet U.S. needs, and private markets will respond more efficiently to supply shocks,” the group said.