Energy Secretary Rick Perry poses in front of the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

U.S. energy secretary steps carefully around budgetmakers in Congress

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry once performed the Cha Cha and the Quickstep on the television show Dancing with the Stars. So it’s no surprise that the former Texas governor displayed some careful footwork this week before three congressional panels examining the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). The president has called for deep cuts to science and technology programs at the $30 billion agency, evoking harsh criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum.

In the face of that opposition, Perry this week repeatedly pirouetted away from defending the spending request. He noted that it was finalized, without his input, before he took office in early March. And he signaled that he recognizes Congress is the lead partner in the annual budgetary dance, because it holds the purse strings. “We have some work to do on this budget, I know that,” he told members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on 21 June, adding that he “looked forward” to working with lawmakers to address their concerns about spending levels. (Perry also met with House of Representatives appropriators on 20 June, and on 22 June with a Senate energy panel that oversees DOE programs.)

At the same time, Perry struck a defiant pose when Democrats pressed him on his views of climate change. “My perspective is that it is not settled science,” he told the Senate spending panel, arguing that the jury is still out on whether carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are driving global warming. 

Perry heard plenty of griping at the three hearings about the proposed budget cuts, which include a 17%, $919 million reduction at DOE’s $5 billion Office of Science and elimination of the $306 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). “This is not a sound science budget, this is a nonscience budget,” said Senator Angus King (I–ME) at the Senate energy panel hearing. “I don’t envy you, you’ve been sent to defend the indefensible.”

“I appreciate the need to derive savings and balance our budget, but that cannot come at the expense of our efforts on energy innovation,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–AK), chair of the energy panel. “Good science should not sit on a shelf, and the department should continue to push the limits of science in order to ensure that the next generation of energy technologies is developed here, in this country.”

Eliminate ARPA-E?

In particular, a number of lawmakers made it plain they aren’t buying the White House’s plan to eliminate ARPA-E, which helps high-risk energy technologies make the leap to commercialization. “That is not what we are going to do,” was the blunt response from Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees DOE. Instead, Alexander suggested his panel plans to use this year’s DOE spending levels—which had remained essentially flat compared with 2016—as a starting point for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. He even hinted at plans to fatten some science budgets. The nation’s financial troubles, he noted, “are not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research.”

Other lawmakers took issue with Trump’s proposed cuts to basic and applied science and technology development programs that would hit especially hard at DOE’s 17 national laboratories. Analysts estimate the cuts could force layoffs of at least 7000 employees at about a dozen of the labs not involved in nuclear weapons work.

“This is a big worry … this is a big-class worry,” said Representative Marcy Kaptur (D–OH), the senior Democrat on the House spending subcommittee that oversees DOE, echoing concerns raised by some Republicans. In particular, she noted later, “while we have struggled with the appropriate split between early and late stage [research and development], along with which deployment activities to support, my fear is that this approach will result in a cornucopia of good ideas residing at the labs in a form still insufficiently mature for private industry to take over.”

Perry made it clear that he isn’t going to fight hard for such cuts. But he also made no promises. “I’m not going to say that not one person at a lab is going to lose their job,” he told the Senate energy panel. And although he appeared to concede that ARPA-E won’t be going away, he did argue that the 8-year-old agency might benefit from some organizational tweaks, without providing any details.

Money wasn’t the only topic discussed at the hearings. Perry also fielded numerous questions about his plans for the moribund and politically sensitive Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The Trump administration has said it wants to put Yucca back on track to receive radioactive spent fuel rods now stored at dozens of nuclear power plants around the nation. But Nevada politicians of all stripes are steadfastly opposed to that idea, even as lawmakers from other states push to find a safer home for the spent fuel.

Perry tried to take a safe path through the minefield, promising to explore every alternative to ending the deadlock. “I will throw a lot of Jello at the wall if that’s what is required to stimulate conversations, to try to truly come up with the solution,” Perry told Senate appropriators.

In a similar vein, he made vague but conciliatory comments about trying to find a way forward on two other long-standing nuclear waste issues: the cleanup of Cold War–related waste at the Hanford Site in Washington state, and the stalled construction of a plant in South Carolina designed to turn some 68 tons of plutonium scavenged from U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons into so-called mixed oxide fuel (MOX). The MOX plant, which began construction in 2007, is now years behind schedule and at least $12 billion overbudget, and both the Trump and Obama administrations have argued that it should be abandoned in favor of an alternative reprocessing method. But some in Congress disagree, arguing that it should be completed because of commitments made to South Carolinian and Russian officials.

Heat on climate

Perry generally exhibited a relaxed, if not bemused, demeanor throughout the questioning. But things got more tense during exchanges with senators Chris Coons (D–DE) and Al Franken (D–MN) over climate change. Both senators asked Perry about remarks he made this past Monday on a CNBC news program casting doubt on carbon dioxide’s role in climate change.

Perry stood by his remarks, arguing that global warming might be primarily driven by “some other naturally occurring events,” such as “the warming and the cooling of our ocean waters.” He added that “man’s impact does in fact have an impact on the climate,” but that the important question was how policies aimed at curbing that impact might affect the U.S. economy.

Perry also endorsed the idea—first floated in a different form by physicist and former DOE official Steve Koonin—of forming a “red team” of climate science doubters to challenge a “blue team” of mainstream researchers, in order to publicly hash out the issues and “get the politics out of it.” But Franken was dismissive, arguing that such debates routinely occur in the scientific peer-review and publication processes. “Every peer-reviewed climate study goes through that red-team/blue-team treatment,” he said. And Franken noted that leading climate science doubters had already funded such an exercise, led by physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley, a self-avowed global warming skeptic. In 2012, however, Muller concluded that “humans are almost entirely the cause” of recent planetary warming.

When Franken read Muller’s conclusion at the hearing, however, he left out the “almost”—and even went a bit further, saying that “100% of peer-reviewed scientists have a consensus” that climate change is happening. An obviously irritated Perry first asked Franken to clarify that Muller had concluded that “global warming was 100% due to human activity.” After Franken—incorrectly—confirmed that statement (Muller has actually said it is more like 90%), Perry pounced. “I don’t buy it,” he said, raising his voice. “To stand up and say that 100% of global warming is because of human activity, I think on its face, is just indefensible.”

The hearing soon moved on to other topics. But it’s a safe bet that legislators will continue to grill Perry about his views both on climate and DOE’s budget, which isn’t expected to be finalized until later this year.