Rick Perry’s famous coif was barely mussed as he was being cross-examined by U.S. senators Thursday. At his confirmation hearing to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, Democrats tried to pin Perry down on exactly where he stands on climate change and the storage of nuclear waste; he demurred, saying that tackling climate change is a balancing act between science and economics. When Republican senators questioned him about energy issues in their home states, they glowed as if they were young and in love—the nominee would take care of them while forsaking all others. Perry came away from over three hours of questioning with a few nicks, but nothing that should undermine the expectation that he will head the agency that he once promised to abolish.
Perry attempted to address that issue in his opening statement to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry said. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” Later, he even turned the flip-flop into a joke: when Democrats tried to grill him about reports that the Trump administration plans to make deep cuts in the agency, Perry likened the proposals to the 2011 presidential debate, when Perry forgot the DOE was one of the three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate (you probably remember his famous “oops“). “Maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that,” Perry said of the proposed cuts.
Democrats gave him a tougher time as he tried to shake his past denial of climate change science. Perry tried to thread the needle from the get-go, saying that “the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity.” But the didn’t get him off the hook for what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it questions. The committee’s senior Democrat, Senator Maria Cantwell, said an upcoming federal study will show that the cost of climate change to the federal government will run into the trillions of dollars, and used her home state, Washington, as an example of an already suffering economy. Perry pointed to the amount of pollutants removed from the Texas air during his time as governor by shutting down dirty power plants and converting some to carbon capture and natural gas. He also noted his promotion of renewable energy sources such as wind and biofuels. A 2014 Politifact on the subject found Perry was not covering all the bases, though.
Half True, we found then. Perry accurately recapped improvements in ozone levels. But as for the NOx emissions contributing to ozone levels, his statistic included only one NOx source — industrial — which he did not note. Notably, nearly three-quarters of NOx emissions come from other sources.
The most direct questioning came from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who demanded that Perry recant his statements from the 2011 campaign and embrace climate change as a global crisis. As Perry attempted to steer back into his record in Texas, Sanders interrupted him by posing a direct question:
Sanders: “I am asking you if you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a crisis?”
Perry: “And senator, I will respond that I think that having an academic discussion, whether it’s with scientists or whether it’s with you, it is an interesting exercise.”
One of the odder exchanges occurred as Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota opened his questioning with an exchange about meeting Perry in his office. Franken is a former comedian and was a member of the cast of Saturday Night Live.
“Did you enjoy meeting me?” Franken asked.
“I hope you are as much fun on that dias as you were on your couch,” Perry replied.
“Well—” Franken began before hesitating as Perry’s words sunk in and the crowd erupted in laughter. Perry turned to former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, who was there to support him, and they both laughed before Perry returned his gaze to Franken.
“May I rephrase that, sir?” Perry interjected.
“Please, please, please,” Franken said, acting as if he was embarrassed. “Oh my Lord, oh my Lord.”
Perry, who had doubled over in laughter, replied, “Well, I think we found our Saturday Night Live soundbite.”
Innocent innuendo aside, Perry showed himself adept at answering questions in a way that kept him from being pinned down in a way that would make him answerable in the future. He promised to protect scientific programs at the DOE, but declined to promise to protect individual scientists. He did not dismiss basic research, but articulated a preference for applied science that results in economic growth.
Even when he waded into the weeds, Perry emerged with few scratches. He said the nation has spent too much time on the politics and management issues of nuclear waste without developing either a short- or long-term solution other than storing it at nuclear power plants. Currently, the DOE is doing test wells at three sites for the storage of high-level waste. One of those sites, in Andrews County, Texas, has been promoted by Perry in the past, but has also been criticized because it was partly owned by the late Harold Simmons, a major Perry political donor. Perry also caused some concern for the committee when he promoted the export of natural gas, which some members claimed would lead to higher domestic heating costs. Overall, though, nothing occurred that would make you believe Perry will be anything other than confirmed by the Senate as the next energy secretary.