Energy Secretary Rick Perry speaks during a daily briefing at the White House. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Editorial Writer

He had plenty of competition, but Rick Perry has managed to produce perhaps the worst take on sexual assault yet: Fossil fuels are the solution to rape.

Perry’s assertion, first reported by the Hill, is only a little less stupid than it sounds. The energy secretary had recently returned from a trip to Africa when he said in an interview that “people are dying … because of the lack of energy they have there.” (Fine.) He continued, “It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out into those villages.” (Slightly less fine.) And then the doozy: “But also from the standpoint of sexual assault, when the lights are on, when you have light that shines, the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts.” (Yikes.)

Perry, of course, is no Cicero. But this gaffe is worth an extra grimace. The idea that sexual assault only happens in the dark strains credulity. So does the connection Perry seems to draw between the physical light cast by burning coal and the metaphysical light of God. Perry is not only using the plight of countless women to promote the Trump administration’s fossil-fuel agenda; he’s also using the word of the Almighty.

Then there’s the true substance of Perry’s argument, to the extent it exists. Yes, electricity is good for humanity, and it would be good for the African villages that survive by firelight. But electricity and fossil fuels aren’t the same thing.

As the New Republic’s Emily Atkin points out on Twitter, the countries Perry points to are outspending the developed world on investment in renewable energy. That’s smart for the environment, and it’s also smart for their economies. Wind and solar plants in Africa can produce cleaner power than fossil fuels at a lower cost. Once African countries start tapping their untapped renewable resources, production could outstrip demand.

Which leads to the central question here: Does Rick Perry still not know what his job is? It was a surprise when the one-time Texas governor agreed to head a department whose elimination he had called for only five years earlier. Knowing Perry, it was less surprising to hear that he had misunderstood the position he had accepted. According to the New York Times, Perry believed “he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.” Instead, he became the custodian of the country’s nuclear complex.

As Perry himself would say, “oops.” The Energy Department does produce a fraction of America’s energy, but only a fraction. Almost 70 percent of its resources go toward its main mission: managing America’s atomic activities. The 30 or so percent that do relate to what Perry probably thought (or thinks) of as “energy” are devoted to researching the smartest ways to create and use power. Though priorities have shifted from administration to administration, the agency has historically put a premium on technical expertise rather than partisan politics.

But Perry seems determined to do away with that, and to meddle in matters he mistakenly thought would be under his purview. The scariest example so far is a rule he proposed to an independent agency under the DOE umbrella that would order utilities to pay to keep coal and nuclear plants open even if their services weren’t needed — even though the directive contradicted a scientific study by his own experts. The silliest is his assault-avoidance recommendation to African villages.

Perry would do better to focus his attention on the fearsome weapons he is tasked with manufacturing, and skeptics of his agenda should keep their eyes open in case he strays even further from those responsibilities. At the very least, traveling the world evangelizing for fossil fuels is a dream he should give up. Scott Pruitt has that covered.