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Rick Perry speaking at a conference

Rick Perry

Gage Skidmore

The reaction to Rick Perry leading the Department of Energy? It’s complicated

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has reportedly been chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to be his energy secretary. The appointment, which was widely reported today, feeds the narrative about Trump nominees who are hostile to the mission of the agency they will be leading. But in Perry’s case, the multiple missions of the Department of Energy (DOE)—energy research, managing nuclear weapons, and environmental cleanup—warrant a closer look at that argument.  

Yes, Perry doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on the importance of reducing carbon emissions to slow the impact of human-induced climate change. And environmental groups have thus been quick to label him “unfit” to run the department, which spends more than $5 billion a year on energy research.

But Texas is also the nation’s leading generator of wind power, a renewable technology that he promoted heavily during his 14 years in office. “He created an environment conducive to economic investment through robust infrastructure and competitive power markets that allowed new technologies to enter. The Texas model under Gov. Perry’s leadership enabled the growth of low-cost wind energy that made the grid more diverse and reliable while saving consumers money,” notes Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C., which lobbies for the wind industry. 

DOE’s renewable energy program is frequently a target of Republicans from oil and gas states. But Perry’s support for the technology may not actually represent a clash of political ideologies. “I found him to be interested in scientific research and technical innovation and to be willing to support investment in them,” says Larry Faulkner, a professor of chemistry and president emeritus of the University of Texas in Austin, whose term overlapped with Perry’s tenure as governor. “His interest was usually driven by the possibilities for economic opportunity for the state, which is not surprising for a governor.”

A statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a liberal advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recognizes that tension. In addition to criticizing his stance on climate change, UCS President Ken Kemmell notes that “the Department of Energy has the critical responsibilities of maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile and responsibly managing the resulting radioactive waste, tasks with which Governor Perry has little experience.” But Kemmell then goes on to praise Perry for the same activities that Kiernan applauded, adding that, “We hope that Governor Perry, as energy secretary, builds on the successful work currently underway at the agency in areas like grid modernization, energy efficiency, and clean energy finance.”

Perry has earned the opprobrium of science educators for his comments on the importance of balancing evolution with creationist theory in Texas schools. And he’s appointed a series of chairs of the state board of education who embrace that view and also criticized science textbooks that discuss the negative impact of fossil fuels on the environment. Yet science education is a tiny $20 million slice of the department’s $30 billion budget.

Yes, Perry is famous for forgetting the department’s name after saying in a debate with Republican opponents during his failed 2012 presidential campaign that it was one of three agencies he wanted to close. And for many environmental groups, Perry’s attitude is consistent with the new president’s plan to dismantle clean energy and climate programs, a shift that they plan to oppose vigorously. “It’s another example of the extended fight over climate and energy policy that will be waged by the new administration and Congress,” says David Goldston of the Natural Resources and Defense Council, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia. 

Perry’s nomination, which has not been announced by the president-elect, comes in the midst of controversy over a questionnaire being circulated by Trump’s transition team for DOE. The 74 questions touch on programs across the agency’s diverse mission, from improving how to speed up commercialization of research at DOE’s 17 national labs to the statutory barriers preventing the long-delayed opening of a Nevada site to house nuclear waste.

Although many of the questions are procedural, a few ask for personal information, such as the names of employees involved in climate negotiations or the professional societies to which lab scientists belong. DOE has said it will not provide some of that information. But the transition’s team approach has drawn comparisons with notorious political witch hunts of previous eras.

If Perry does eventually lead DOE, researchers will be looking closely for any indication that the new administration is planning to weaken the department. It’s a simple question of what’s in the national interest, says political scientist David Hart of George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia.

“I hope that Governor Perry, who is on record as favoring the abolition of the Department of Energy, will look carefully at what the Department actually does before he leaps to any conclusions as to what should be done about it,” says Hart, who directs GMU's Center for Science and Technology Policy. “Energy is a matter of sufficient national importance that it deserves representation in the Cabinet.”

*Correction, 14 December, 9:10 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misquoted the CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. The story has been revised to include his actual statement. We apologize for the error.