Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a U.S. Senate panel that he is committed to modernizing the country's nuclear stockpile, promoting "energy in all forms" and enhancing grid security if confirmed to lead the U.S. Department of Energy.
Perry, whom GOP President-elect Donald Trump nominated for energy secretary, appeared Jan. 19 at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The former presidential candidate said during the GOP primary race in 2011 that Energy would be one of three federal agencies he would eliminate if elected. But Perry assured lawmakers at the hearing that his views have changed and he was ready to take on the department's diverse range of missions.
"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," Perry said. "After being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination."
Perry also disavowed a controversial questionnaire a Trump transition team member sent to the Energy Department requesting information on department staff who worked on climate-related initiatives under the Obama administration. The transition team later distanced itself from the memo, saying a team member had sent the questionnaire without authorization.
"I didn't approve [the questionnaire]. I don't approve of it," he said. Perry added that he would protect Energy scientists regardless of their focus areas.
The former Texas governor vowed to support many of the agency's key missions, including modernization of the nation's nuclear stockpile, with nuclear safety the largest part of the department's budget. Perry also pledged to "advocate and promote American energy in all forms," including renewable resources.
Potential DOE cuts loom
Perry's commitments to all energy forms come as Trump prepares to roll back many key Obama administration climate policies and rules that affect the fossil fuel industry. Perry said he believes the climate is changing both from manmade activities and natural factors but asked how to address it in a way that "doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs." He also highlighted the jump in Texas wind generation while he was governor alongside the addition of about 2 million jobs in the state.
Perry nevertheless faced concerns that the Energy Department's research and development budget could be slashed under Trump. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked whether Trump's team plans to scrap the agency's offices of energy efficiency, renewable energy and fossil fuels. Hirono's questions followed an article from The Hill, published the same day, that reported the Trump administration could eliminate several DOE offices and roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels in a bid to reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over ten years.
Perry responded that technology from the the Energy Department would "play an important role" in the new administration, although he did not confirm the Trump team's plans or specify particular priorities or funding goals.
If the DOE's budget is cut, Perry said his 30 years of public service experience would come in handy. "This is not my first rodeo [in] dealing with budget shortfalls," he said.
Senate energy committee ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also pressured Perry regarding Trump's stance on Russian interference in the U.S. elections and the potential for cyber attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure from nation-states.
Cantwell said Americans "deserve a president and energy secretary who are going to take the threats of Russian hacking seriously."
Perry pointed to his experience as governor of a coastal state in dealing with emergency response to disasters and promised to enhance the Energy Department's security measures where necessary and assist with recovery efforts in the event of a major cyberattack.
The future of nuclear waste storage policy was another focus during the hearing. U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., asked Perry if he would work with Nevada on its concerns about siting a permanent nuclear waste storage repository at Yucca Mountain. The Obama administration halted plans to build a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, but proponents of the project hope it will be revived under Trump. Perry said the nuclear waste issue has "flummoxed" the country for 30 years and that he would "work closely" with lawmakers on finding a solution "in the interim and the long term."
Cortez Masto asked Perry outright if he opposed or supported the Yucca Mountain project. He said he could not give a definitive answer but would look at "alternative ways" to address the storage issue if he is confirmed Energy Secretary.
The GOP-controlled Senate looks likely to approve Perry's nomination, with only a simple majority of senators needed to confirm his appointment. Environmental and scientific groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and Union of Concerned Scientists have expressed worries about Perry's nomination in light of his past skepticism of DOE and his reservations about climate action, but Republicans and business groups have welcomed his nomination.