Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told lawmakers that he regrets saying he would dismantle the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and said he believes climate change is real, making him the third high profile appointment to break from President-elect Donald Trump on the issue.
During a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday, Perry also distanced himself from a controversial questionnaire Trump's transition team sent to DOE employees on climate change and promised to protect its science budget for climate issues.
But the hearing, which lasted three and a half hours, was overshadowed by a media report that the transition team has proposed making huge cuts to the federal government, including the elimination of three offices at DOE. One senator quipped that the proposed cuts would "cut the legs out from under" Perry.
Regrets past comments on DOE
"I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the DOE," Perry said in his opening remarks. "My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the DOE do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the DOE, I regret recommending its elimination."
During a presidential debate in November 2011, Perry said that if he were elected president, he would abolish three government agencies, but at that moment he was only able to identify two of them: the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education. Later in the debate, he said the third agency was DOE. The matter was considered a gaffe, and Perry dropped out of the race the following January.
'The climate is changing'
On climate change, Perry offered an answer similar to those made earlier this week by Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) and former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in their confirmation hearings this week to serve as secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI) and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), respectively.
"I believe the climate is changing," Perry said. "I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by manmade activity. The question is how [to] address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs."
Although the hearing was mostly cordial, there were some fireworks on the climate change issue between the former governor and Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). When Franken pressed him about how much climate change is due to human activity, Perry responded that he was not "sitting before you today and claiming to be a climate scientist. I will not do that."
"I don't think you're ever going to be a climate scientist, but you're going to be head of the DOE," Franken said.
"That's correct, and I know how to hire really good scientists."
"Well, 97% of climate scientists say that this is real and that we are going to be approaching at the end of this century three and a half Celsius increases in temperature, which would be disastrous," Franken said. "I don't want this idea of the economy and addressing climate change are at odds at all."
Near the end of the hearing, Perry told Sanders "I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring [and] some of it is caused by manmade activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth and that, quite frankly, doesn't affect our energy affordability."
That led to a testy exchange. "I'm asking you if you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a crisis, and that we need to transform our energy system to protect future generations," Sanders said.
"I think that having an academic discussion, whether it's with scientists or with you, is an interesting exercise," Perry replied.
Pledge to protect science budget
In light of the questionnaire by the Trump transition team and reports that Russian hacking may have influenced the last presidential election, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the committee's ranking member, asked Perry where he stood on the issues of cybersecurity and protecting DOE's science budget for studying climate change.
"Juxtaposed to the fact we're getting hacked by the Russians, and the Republicans in the House couldn't bother to pick up a cybersecurity bill and pass it, I'm trying to understand where you as DOE secretary are going to have priorities," Cantwell said.
"That questionnaire that you referenced went out before I was ever selected as the nominee to sit before this committee," Perry said. "I didn't approve it. I don't approve of it. I don't need that information. I don't want that information. That is not how I manage. I have a history of working with people to find answers to challenges that face us...
"I'm going to protect all of the science, whether it's to the climate or to the other aspects of what we're going to be doing." He later added, "I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them, no matter what their reason may be, at the DOE."
Pressed further on cybersecurity by Cantwell, Perry said DOE "has a massive role to play in that. It's an area that I also have a history with, of working with the private sector, working with in my case state government entities. But DOE will allow me to go to a new level, if you will, of engagement to find the ways to protect.
"I'll be honest with you: I don't care who it is -- what players, whether it's a formal state or a group that is loosely associated [with one]. If they are trying to penetrate into American's lives, whether it's private citizens or at the highest levels of our government -- you will see me in engaged in activities at the DOE...
"I feel very comfortable that we have in our scientific laboratories, in our private sector operations, in the fertile minds of the men and women at the DOE on the scientific side in particular, the technology and the ability to stop the cyber snooping, or for that matter, the intentions to do harm to Americans by penetrating into our electric grids, for instance."
Report of proposed DOE cuts
According to The Hill, the Trump transition team has proposed major cuts to DOE and the Commerce, Justice, State and Transportation departments. That news percolated into Perry's confirmation hearing by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who said Trump has proposed eliminating DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and the Office of Fossil Energy.
Hirono asked Perry if he supports the cuts.
"Maybe they'll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that," Perry said, which elicited laughter from the panel and the audience. "We're counting on you to educate the incoming president," Hirono replied.
Sen. Angus King (I-ME) said the proposed cuts "are devastating and they go to the heart of what we've been talking about today. I hope the people that are proposing these cuts are watching this hearing...This is absolutely nuts in terms of the future of energy in this country.
"You're going to have to really do some hard pushing back on this," King told Perry. "Assuming this is true, I find it's almost self parody to be cutting energy research at this moment in time...They're cutting the legs out from under you."
"Senator, I have a rather interesting background, not unlike yours, of defending budgets both from those who are 'in the know,' and sometimes people who don't understand--
"It's hard for me to believe that the people that are recommending these cuts are in any kind of know," King interjected.
"I'll allow your statement to stand," Perry said. "My point is, I know what the DOE should be good at. I have spent enough time making myself aware..."
Later in the hearing, King said he was concerned about DOE granting authorization for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Specifically, he called the department's queue that would collectively authorize the export of 71% of U.S. natural gas production problematic.
"This Congress cannot repeal the law of supply and demand, and there is no way in the world that that will not drastically and significantly affect domestic prices, which has been one of our advantages vis-à-vis the rest of the world in terms of bringing manufacturing back and sustaining our economy," King said.
But Perry signaled strong support for LNG exports, saying he is committed to "finding ways to make sure that we don't artificially affect supply and demand. What I will suggest to you is that there are decisions that have been made in Washington, DC, that have artificially affected supply and demand, and it's been on the supply side.
"I would ask the EPA and the DOI, and [perhaps] Congress on the tax and regulatory side that they can affect, to make sure that we have the ability to fill the supply because the demand is going to be there...If we produce it in America, it makes abundant good sense to me for us to sell it to the world."
King fired back. "Unless doing so significantly increases domestic prices, which is exactly what happened in Australia, where they are now exporting almost all of their natural gas and their natural gas domestically I think tripled in price. That would be a disaster for the economy of this country."
"Yes, and I totally understand that," Perry said. "But my point is that when we look at this entire issue globally, we need to make sure that we're not making decisions here that is affecting the ability to supply so that you can keep the demand addressed in a thoughtful and a fair way that does not drive up the cost to where a manufacturing base for instance...would be affected in a negative way."
Reaction to nomination
Trump's decision to nominate Perry last month brought praise from some circles and ridicule from others.
"Texans are tired of political posturing by federal bureaucrats," said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association. He added that Perry "will be a breath of fresh air because he is committed to protecting the environment while making Americans less dependent on other nations for our energy needs."
But Ben Schreiber, senior political strategist for environmental group Friends of the Earth, called Perry "uniquely unqualified" to run DOE.
"Perry had no idea that the DOE's main responsibility was overseeing the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal when he accepted the job," Schreiber said. "The only conclusion we can draw is that Trump also had no idea what the DOE really does."