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Rick Perry, a Very Different Kind of Energy Secretary

He’s a climate denier who has called for the end of the Department of Energy—but he also helped Texas become a renewable-energy powerhouse.
December 13, 2016

Donald Trump wants Rick Perry to become his secretary of energy. So what qualifies the ex-governor of Texas for a job that’s recently been filled by prominent academics?

For Perry to head up the Department of Energy would be ironic given that he famously forgot its name during a debate in 2011 when he was asked about his calls to scrap the agency entirely. The department has a wide-ranging remit, tasked with maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, dealing with nuclear waste cleanup, and handling a wide range of energy research programs.

No surprise, then, that the position has most recently been held by intellectual heavyweights—the Stanford University physicist and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu from 2009 to 2013, and, most recently,  the former MIT nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz. Before that, under George W. Bush’s presidency, the position was held by Samuel Bodman, who had a PhD in chemical engineering from MIT.

Rick Perry at the Republican National Convention earlier this year.

Perry graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelors degree in animal science.

Bloomberg reports that Jay Martin Cohen, who studied marine engineering at MIT and served as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, is slated to be Perry’s undersecretary for nuclear security. So that’s that covered. But Perry’s stance on the environment and energy research is unclear. While he doesn’t have a history of working in the oil industry, unlike many Texan governors of the past, his policies have certainly supported the extraction of fossil fuels.

His views on climate change run counter to the accepted scientific consensus. During his 2011 presidential bid, he said that he believes “the issue of global warming has been politicized,” adding that he thought there were “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” The climate, he said, has “been changing ever since the earth was born.”

Interestingly enough, as governor of Texas Perry presided over a huge boom in wind power. While George W. Bush signed a law to deregulate the state’s power market, which opened the floodgates for the surge in renewables, it was Perry who oversaw construction of the infrastructure that now helps turbines provide almost 18,000 megawatts of wind capacity.

The state’s success with renewables is largely due to a huge $7 billion grid investment. Without that, Texas wouldn’t be able to utilize anywhere near the energy its turbines crank out. In fact, infrastructure seems to be something that Perry really can get behind: in 2001, he proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor—a $145 billion mesh of road, rail, and data cables that would run from Oklahoma to Mexico. He wanted it to be partially financed and wholly run by private contractors, though, and it never got a green light.

As for research, as secretary of energy he’ll struggle to entirely transform the allocation of energy research funding. But he will be able to guide it. In particular, a research program run by the Department of Energy that invests in nascent energy technologies, known as ARPA-E, could suffer under the Trump administration. Since 2009, it has put $1.3 billion into 475 projects—only 36 of which have been spun up into new companies. (As a result, a new pot of $1 billion in private funding for radical energy solutions may be more useful than ever.)

With luck, Perry’s taste for infrastructure could yet yield positive news for the energy sector. He may, for instance, choose to invest in research to develop new carbon capture systems, nuclear fusion facilities, or advanced nuclear reactors, for instance. But if he does, it certainly won’t be because of his concern for the planet.

(Read more: New York Times, Bloomberg, “The One and Only Texas Wind Boom,” “$1 Billion Looking for a Home”)

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