Nominee Perry Defends Energy Department, Changes View on Climate

Perry walks back earlier statements about climate and the department he has been nominated to run, completing confirmation hearing for Energy secretary. | Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry promised on Thursday to be an advocate for scientific research and for the broad mission of the Department of Energy he previously proposed to eliminate and that may soon face deep budget cuts.

President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as Energy secretary also told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considering his nomination that he has changed his view on climate change, now viewing human activity as a contributing factor while not stating that it is the primary driver.

Perry said he regrets his calls over the past five years for dismantling the Energy Department.

“I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the DOE,” Perry told senators. “My past statements . . . about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking.”

Perry also dropped his resistance to the scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to climate change, but did not go so far to say humans are the primary driver. “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,” Perry said. He had previously described climate change as a natural process and suggested that scientists linking it to human activity might be skewing the results of their work.

Perry promised to make policy based on science, to promote DOE’s scientific activities and protect DOE scientists, including those working on climate research. He distanced himself from an inquiry by the Trump transition team before his nomination seeking to identify DOE staff and contract personnel involved in climate change activities.

“Recognizing that human actions contribute to climate change is an important step toward addressing how to tackle it,” said Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher, Science family of journals. “I agree with Rick Perry that this requires a thoughtful approach. The scientific community, with its expertise and decades of research, is contributing the necessary scientific knowledge that can be utilized by policymakers to craft solutions to climate and energy challenges.

“I am also heartened that Perry has stated his support for basic research, recognizing that the benefits of such investments may not yield benefits for generations to come. We encourage the next secretary of Energy to build on this recognition by preparing a budget request that supports the diverse portfolio of research programs within the agency. We stand ready to assist the secretary of Energy and scientists at DOE as they work to advance scientific knowledge and develop energy solutions,” added Holt.

In a December letter, Holt urged Perry to appoint leading scientists and engineers to top DOE positions in order to provide timely scientific and technical input on policy decisions. As the largest funding source for basic research in the physical sciences, the Energy Department plays a critical role in ensuring energy security and efforts to deal with threats including cyber attacks and extreme weather, Holt wrote.

Perry breezed through his confirmation hearing without serious challenge from either side of the aisle, although Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., unsuccessfully pressed him to support curtailing the use of fossil fuels in order to reduce global warming.

Democratic senators expressed alarm about reports that the incoming administration intends to propose deep spending cuts at DOE that would curtail research in nuclear physics, advanced scientific computing, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Perry said he was unaware of such plans, but said he has the experience necessary to manage and prioritize under a tight budget. “This is not my first rodeo when it comes to dealing with budget shortfalls,” he said.

Perry described himself as a fiscal conservative but a strong proponent of taxpayer-funded research in areas including energy efficiency and renewable energy that leads to the development of technology that strengthens the economy and improves quality of life. “The administration knew that when they asked me to serve in this role,” he assured senators.

Responding to the concerns of committee members, Perry cited cybersecurity as one of the nation’s greatest short-term challenges that should be a focus of collaborative research by the private sector, universities and government laboratories.

Perry took a more cautious approach to the politically sensitive issue of nuclear waste storage. While he promised to pursue cleanups at nuclear waste sites, he declined to take a position on opening the planned nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. “I’m going to be looking at the alternative ways to address this issue,” he said. “We can find a solution to this.”