8 Reasons To Worry About Rick Perry Running The Department Of Energy

For one thing, he doesn't seem to understand what the DOE even does.
Jim Young/Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that he had picked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was met with both mirth and alarm. During the 2011 presidential primaries, Perry not only declared that he would abolish the department if he got the opportunity, but he ― in a memorable gaffeforgot the department’s name.

Perry’s disdain for the department he’s been tapped to run is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons why critics say he’s a poor choice for the job. His supporters argue that Perry, who governed Texas for 14 years, is a solid pick because of his experience managing a massive annual budget and heading up a sizable bureaucracy with thousands of employees. But Perry has also demonstrated a dangerous lack of scientific knowledge, including rigid climate skepticism, as well as eyebrow-raising ties to the fossil fuel industry and a reputation for cronyism and “pay-for-play.”

Perry has to fundamentally change the way he approaches science and science policy if he is indeed confirmed to lead the DOE, Rob Cowin of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a blog post last week.

Governor Perry can certainly make a credible case that he’s a good manager, and he even has some experience with spent nuclear fuel policy in Texas. But he’s also made numerous inaccurate and misleading scientific statements, and rejects the scientific consensus on things like climate change,” Cowin wrote. “If Rick Perry is truly ‘very intent on doing a good job’ [as energy secretary], he’ll need to hit the reset button on his approach to science and science policy, start talking to the experts, and stop making irresponsible statements.”

The Senate is prepared hold a hearing on Thursday to evaluate Perry’s fitness for the role. Here are eight reasons senators should be wary:

He doesn’t seem to understand what the DOE actually does.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
“They’ve never created one bit of energy, the best I can tell,” Perry said during an October 2011 campaign stop in New Hampshire. “Our energy industry has to be freed up from the overregulations. We need to have a domestic energy policy that is for America to be independent on our own energy within eight years.”

But here’s the problem with Perry’s assumptions about the DOE: Only a tiny fraction of the department's work actually involves energy production.

That is “overwhelmingly a job for the private sector,” William Tobey, a former deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, wrote in December 2016 in Foreign Policy.

The DOE has two primary focuses: nuclear energy, security, weapons and cleanup, which accounts for some 60 percent of the department’s $30 billion budget; and research and development relating to such things as finding cleaner ways to use and produce energy.

“The Rick Perry choice is so perplexing,” former Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who for many years led the committee that oversees the Energy Department’s budget, told The New York Times last December. “I think very few people understand that the Energy Department, to a very substantial degree, is dealing with nuclear weapons. And Rick Perry suggested the agency should be abolished. That suggests he thinks it doesn’t have value.”
He's not a scientist.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Science is at the heart of the DOE. The department has 17 national laboratories that focus on physics, chemistry and other sciences. As Tobey noted in his Foreign Policy piece, these labs operate at the highest level: “115 scientists associated with the department or its predecessors have won Nobel prizes. These laboratories are precious national resources that enhance American welfare, prosperity, and security."

Perry may have governed a state rich in fossil fuels and wind energy, but his experience for the role of energy secretary pales in comparison to that of his two predecessors: Dr. Ernest Moniz, an eminent nuclear physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. Steven Chu, who has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley and is a Nobel laureate.

Perry has a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Texas A&M -- and, according to his college transcript, he graduated with a 1.88 GPA (D+) average in the science courses in his major.

As Perry supporters have noted, being a scientist is not a prerequisite for the job of energy secretary. However, as theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explained in a piece for The New York Times, the person who takes up the mantle “should be someone who is at least familiar with the strategic issues associated with both nuclear power and nuclear weapons,” and who has “at least a modicum of policy experience with some of the vast array of fundamental science supported by the agency.”

As governor, Perry ignored basic science on several occasions. He, for instance, supported teaching both evolution and creationist theory in schools. He has also reportedly criticized science textbooks that discussed the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels.

Oh, and he doesn’t believe in climate change (more on that later).

Krauss called Perry “the wrong choice for energy secretary,” and recalled meeting the nominee for the first time at the World Economic Forum.

“After finding out I was a physicist, [Perry] singled me out in the audience while he was onstage, saying, ‘As Professor Krauss knows, you can violate the laws of physics, but only for a while.’ My answer was, ‘Well, actually you can’t,’ which was followed by a bit of nervous laughter from the crowd,” Krauss wrote. “In the present climate, when nuclear tensions are higher than they have been since the height of the Cold War, when the Iran deal is under attack and proliferation in unstable countries like Pakistan and North Korea will affect plans for our own arsenal, we need someone who is better prepared to handle the challenges. ... Maybe not a rocket scientist, but not someone who likes to think that the laws of physics can be played with at will.”
He has iffy, potentially dangerous, views on nuclear.
Jeff T. Green/Getty Images
“One of my first actions in office [as president] would be to invalidate the … Iran [nuclear] agreement, which jeopardizes the safety and security of the free world," Perry said in 2015.

Perry claimed the current deal ― which was historic and ended a 12-year nuclear standoff ― enables a nuclear Iran rather than prevents it.

He would seek instead “to further cripple Iran’s economy, undermine the Iranian regime by increasing support for its internal opposition, and then rely on military strikes to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities if necessary,” according to Bloomberg.

Critics have expressed alarm over Perry’s nuclear views, particularly at such a critical juncture in Iranian-American relations, as well as his lack of expertise in the area. Perry’s predecessor at the DOE, Moniz, played a vital role in the negotiations with Iran.

“One need look back only to the complex negotiations surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, and remember Secretary Moniz huddling with Secretary of State John Kerry, and engaged in long meetings with his Iranian counterpart, another nuclear physicist, to appreciate how important it was to have someone there who actually knew what was required to produce viable nuclear weapons from nuclear reactor products, and what was required to ensure that treaty violations could be detected,” Krauss wrote.

Environmentalists have also criticized Perry’s approach to nuclear waste during his tenure as governor.

He controversially urged the federal government to allow Texas to store both low-level and high-level radioactive waste in the state.

The former governor is “enamored of this idea of interim storage of high-level radioactive waste,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Austin American-Statesman. “We think it’s better to keep it at nuclear plants until a proper long-term geologic storage site can be decided. Doesn’t make sense to ship it somewhere for 20 or 30 years, then ship it somewhere else. It increases the chances for terrorist attacks or an accident.”
He’s a climate change skeptic.
Gretchen Ertl/Reuters
Perry has been vocal about his skepticism of climate change.

In his 2010 book Fed Up!, Perry lambasted Democrats who have embraced the “so-called science” on global warming. “We have been experiencing a cooling trend,” he insisted at the time.

Like the president-elect, Perry has also insinuated that climate change may be a hoax or conspiracy. “There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” he said during a 2011 campaign appearance.

More recently, Perry denied that carbon dioxide, which accounts for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, is a “pollutant.”

“Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice to the country, and I believe a disservice to the world,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 2014.

As governor of Texas, Perry was adamantly opposed to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. He sued the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 on behalf of Texas in a bid to stop it from doing just that. (He lost the case.)

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said last December that Perry’s “refusal to accept the broad scientific consensus on climate change calls into question his fitness to head up a science-based agency like DOE.”
He is chummy with the fossil fuel industry.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Critics say Perry’s conflicts of interest, particularly his close ties with the fossil fuel industry, could cloud his ability to make impartial decisions.

As governor, Perry strongly supported fossil fuel development in his state. Natural gas production in Texas increased by 50 percent during his governorship, while oil production ballooned by 260 percent.

“Under Mr. Perry, Texas has moved eagerly to build coal-fired power plants, even as other states have stopped issuing permits for the plants because of pollution concerns,” the Times reported in 2011.

Perry accepted more than $14 million in campaign donations from the energy industry during his tenure as governor, according to the National Institute on Money and State Politics.

And until recently, Perry sat on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. Perry accepted a $6 million campaign donation from the company last year. He resigned from the board on Dec. 31, 2016, after being tapped to head the DOE.
His wind energy achievements may not be what they seem.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Much has been made of Perry’s positive track record when it comes to renewables. According to the Houston Press, wind energy in Texas “exploded in growth” during Perry’s time as governor, “rocketing from only 116 megawatts of production in 2000 to more than 11,000 megawatts in 2013 when he left office.”

Critics, however, have cautioned against giving Perry too much credit on this front.

“It is not Perry who deserves credit for the … wind boom but economics, private industry, minimal siting requirements, and the policy momentum created by previous governors’ appointees and the Texas Legislature,” Karl Rabago, who was a commissioner with the Public Utilities Commission of Texas when Perry was governor, told energy news website Utility Dive. “I have a hard time thinking of any bold leadership by Gov. Perry on clean energy or utility transformation.”

“I give him some credit for not taking action against the development of wind and transmission,” said Rabago, who is also a former DOE deputy assistant secretary. “But he also was a vocal champion of coal expansion.”

Perry has called himself an advocate of an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, one that seeks to develop all kinds of energy — from nuclear to coal to solar and wind. However, he has displayed no real urgency to promote renewables. He said in 2011 that there are enough fossil fuel reserves in the U.S. to meet demand for the next 300 years.

Experts say Perry’s DOE is anticipated to favor fossil fuel loans, while “new clean energy technology loans … would likely be in limbo,” according to a Bloomberg Energy and Climate report.

“I would expect Perry to put more emphasis on programs that would come out of the [DOE] Office of Fossil Energy,” Robert Edwards, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton who specializes in energy projects and a former deputy general counsel for energy policy at the DOE, told Bloomberg.
He has a “pay-to-play” reputation.
Jason Reed/Reuters
Critics have called Perry a “devoted practitioner of crony capitalism” and the “king of pay-to-play.”

In an earlier report, the Times highlighted Perry’s penchant for favoring political allies in his decisions as governor.

“Over three terms in office, Mr. Perry’s administration has doled out grants, tax breaks, contracts and appointments to hundreds of his most generous supporters and their businesses,” the publication reported. “And they have helped Mr. Perry raise more money than any politician in Texas history, donations that have periodically raised eyebrows but, thanks to loose campaign finance laws and a business-friendly political culture dominated in recent years by Republicans, have only fueled Mr. Perry’s ascent.”

Perry came under scrutiny in 2011 for his ties with Waste Control Specialists, a Dallas company that won state backing to operate one of the few facilities in the U.S. which disposes of low-level nuclear materials.

Perry reportedly received at least $3 million in campaign donations from the company’s late founder, billionaire Harold Simmons, in the decade before the facility’s opening.

“There has been no secret that Harold Simmons’ direct self-interest lies in building, permitting and operating his hazardous waste dump and low-level nuclear waste dump in West Texas,” Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice told NPR in 2011. “And the wheels have been greased at every turn.”

“Texas politics does have this amazing pay-to-play culture,” Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant, told the Times that year.

There are concerns now that Perry will bring this culture to the DOE.

“If history is prologue, it’s gonna be a pay-to-play Energy Department and a bidder’s war between the coal companies, the renewable energy companies, and the big nuclear companies,” Tom Smith, executive director of the Texas Office of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, told Utility Dive.
And let’s not forget, he once wanted to get rid of the department altogether.
John Gress/Reuters
Perry is “utterly unqualified to lead this critical agency,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement last December. “President-elect Trump has signaled his blatant hostility to the Department [of Energy] by nominating someone who has proposed eliminating this entire agency.”


Dominique Mosbergen is a reporter at The Huffington Post covering climate change, extreme weather and extinction. Send tips or feedback to dominique.mosbergen@huffingtonpost.com or follow her on Twitter.

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