Former Texas governor Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Energy Department, parried questions about climate change at his confirmation hearing Thursday morning, reversing his earlier skeptical stance but still balking when pressed to declare it a crisis.
Perry also expressed contrition for campaigning for the presidency in 2012 on the promise of abolishing the agency.
“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry said in his opening statement to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”
Perry brought up the politically sensitive topic of climate change, saying he believes the climate is changing and “some of it” is caused by “man-made activity.” He added: “The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.”
Like other Trump nominees who have professed differences with the president-elect over climate change, Perry framed the issue in a way that went beyond what Trump has said. But Democrats probed to figure out whether Perry’s new stance marked an incremental or fundamental change in outlook.
One day after U.S. scientists declared 2016 the hottest year on record, Perry went further than Trump did in a television interview broadcast late last year. The president-elect told “Fox News Sunday” in December that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real.
Perry’s comment was also at odds with his own earlier public posture. During a 2014 Christian Science Monitor luncheon, Perry said the science showing that humans are contributing to climate change was unsettled and argued that calling carbon dioxide “a pollutant is doing a disservice” to the country.
Throughout the hearing, Perry sidestepped Democrats who sought to pin him down about the gravity of the problem. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) repeatedly asked Perry whether he agreed that it is a “crisis.” Perry declined to answer directly. “I like getting past the rhetoric,” he said.
Some Democrats on the panel criticized Perry for placing the climate issue at odds with economic concerns. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) pointed to damage to fishing and timber industries from higher temperatures and fires. Perry responded by pointing to the record in Texas, where the economy grew while the various emissions fell.
Perry also tried to defuse controversy over a questionnaire that the Trump transition team gave to Energy Department officials asking for the names of individuals involved in climate change research and negotiations. Though the transition team disavowed the questionnaire, it raised fears of a witch hunt for people working on climate change.
“That questionnaire went out before I was ever selected,” 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.” He added, “I have a history of working with people to deal with the challenges that face us.”
He called the national laboratories the “crown jewel of this country from an intellectual and certainly scientific standpoint.”
Citing Perry’s assertion in his 2010 book that the planet was in a “cooling trend,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked him how much he thinks climate change is caused by human activity.
“Far from me to be sitting before you today and claiming to be a climate scientist. I will not do that,” said Perry, dodging the question.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to be a climate scientist. But you’re going to be the head of the Department of Energy,” Franken shot back.
Trump’s nomination of Perry marks an unusual turn for the Texas politician.
As Perry bowed out of the presidential campaign in September 2015, he took a not-so-veiled parting shot at front-runner Trump.
“The conservative movement has always been about principles, not personalities,” Perry said in an email to supporters.
Fifteen months later, Perry was invited to join the cast of the Trump Cabinet as energy secretary.
It is an unexpected landing pad for Perry. In the 2012 presidential campaign, Perry said that the agency was one of three that should be abolished — although, with a sheepish “oops,” he famously could not remember its name during a debate. The episode ended Perry’s campaign.
Now, Perry needs to figure out how to manage that department. If confirmed, Perry would run an agency tasked with monitoring the nation’s nuclear stockpile, cleaning up old nuclear-weapon development sites, managing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, setting appliance standards, managing the national laboratories, and overseeing a portfolio of grants, loans and loan guarantees that support research and development on every type of energy.
Many people say that Perry brings valuable experience to the job. As governor, he benefited from a rapid expansion of oil and gas exploration in new shale oil and shale gas plays. But he also oversaw an expansion of transmission lines that made way for a rapid expansion of wind energy.
“Under Rick Perry’s leadership, Texas created a stable, long-term, competitive energy market, combined with robust infrastructure investment, which allowed new technologies, like wind, to enter,” the American Wind Energy Association’s chief executive, Tom Kiernan, said in a letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
During Perry’s tenure, Texas became the nation’s leading wind energy state. By the end of 2015, the state had nearly 18,000 megawatts of installed capacity, driven by more than $32 billion of private investment.
Environmental groups are less enthusiastic about Perry. They worry that he will try to curb the department’s climate-related research and regulatory activities. Perry has sharply criticized New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) for banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to explore for shale oil and shale gas, suggesting in a radio interview that Cuomo had given in to “a small group of radical environmentalists to stop job creation and to stop people’s ability to have a better life for themselves.”
Though Perry, who was governor for 14 years, lacks the academic firepower of predecessors such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Ernest Moniz or Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, other secretaries have included a U.S. senator, a business woman, a retired admiral and a dentist-turned-politician.
“He’s managed one of the largest economies based on energy in the world,” said Frank Maisano, a public affairs specialist on energy at the law firm Bracewell. “He did an effective job of balancing both fossil fuels and the expansion of renewable generation.”
Salo Zelermyer, a senior lawyer at the Energy Department under President George W. Bush, said: “From my perspective, anybody who has served as governor of a state like Texas for the length of time he served speaks to his ability to manage large organizations and to understand the dynamic between the appropriate role of regulation and appropriate role of industry.”