Energy Secretary Rick Perry is planning to step down from his post by the end of the year, according to four individuals briefed on his plans, making him one of about a dozen Cabinet members to leave their post during President Trump’s administration.
The former Texas governor, who has touted fossil fuels but also research into alternative energy since taking office, has not enacted the same sweeping policy changes as his counterparts at the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Politico first reported Thursday night that Perry planned to leave by the end of November.
Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in an email, “While the Beltway media has breathlessly reported on rumors of Secretary Perry’s departure for months, he is still the Secretary of Energy and a proud member of President Trump’s Cabinet. One day the media will be right. Today is not that day.”
Perry is among the longest-serving members of Trump’s Cabinet, which has had a historic level of turnover because of a combination of scandals and the president’s penchant for growing tired of officials he deems to be ineffective or disloyal. Perry has kept a low public profile during his time in the administration, particularly for a former governor who twice ran for president, and has shown few signs he has ambitions for a future in politics.
One Trump administration ally says Perry, who has spent much of his career in public service, would like to earn a private-sector salary “before hanging up his spurs.”
In May, Perry led the American delegation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration in the place of Vice President Pence, and congressional Democrats have begun to examine the trip in light of the ongoing impeachment inquiry focused on Ukraine. However, no evidence has emerged that Perry participated in the effort to pressure Ukranian officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
It’s unclear whether Trump would nominate a successor for Perry, particularly if it would lead to a messy confirmation fight in an election year, and the president has said on several occasions that he likes to have acting officials in key positions.
While Perry has shifted some of the Energy Department’s policy emphasis compared to his Democratic predecessors, especially on climate change, the department has not experienced as much turmoil as other parts of the federal government under Trump. And Perry has worked on initiatives such as protecting the electricity grid from cybersecurity attacks, which enjoys bipartisan support.
The White House has consistently pressed to cut the agency’s budget, but it has actually grown instead, from $34.6 billion in fiscal 2018 to $35.5 billion in fiscal 2019. Perry regularly traveled the country to hand out research grants, and praised the work of its scientists.
During a presidential debate in 2011, Perry forgot the name of the Energy Department when he listed three departments he would eliminate if elected. But he became one of its enthusiastic boosters after taking its helm, going out of his way to visit its 17 national labs.
At a stop last year at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., Perry remarked that near the lab there are some “pretty cool companies to be working for and you could be making a helluva lot more money, most likely, than working in this place.” But working among talented federal scientists, he said, “is invaluable. You’re making a difference.”
That same year Perry praised the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which has helped kick-start research into solar energy and battery storage, as one of the reasons the Energy Department “has had and is having such a profound impact on American lives.”
The Trump administration proposed eliminating ARPA-E for two years in a row.
But the secretary expended more effort bolstering legacy players in the energy sector, including coal and nuclear power. Within a month of taking office, Perry met with Robert E. Murray, a coal magnate and major Trump donor. The two men hugged, and Murray Energy’s founder gave Perry a four-page memo outlining ways the federal government could help his ailing industry.
Perry followed through on some of those recommendations. He pressed the independent agency that oversees regional electricity markets, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to provide subsidies for power plants that can keep at least 90 days’ worth of fuel on-site. Only coal and nuclear fall into that category. The secretary described the policy as the way of ensuring the electrical grid would keep functioning even as operators relied more on solar, wind and natural gas.
But the commission rejected the proposal in January 2018, saying that problems in transmission lines posed a greater threat.
“There is no evidence in the record to suggest that temporarily delaying the retirement of uncompetitive coal and nuclear generators would meaningfully improve the resilience of the grid,’’ Commissioner Richard Glick wrote at the time.
Perry, who oversaw a boom in both wind power and shale drilling in his home state during his time as governor, expressed his faith in the U.S. coal industry’s future on multiple occasions. During a trip to a coal-fired plant in Maidsville, W.Va., in July 2017, he declared, “You put the supply out there, and demand will follow.”
Just last month, DOE finalized a rule keeping energy-intensive incandescent lightbulbs on the market. Under an Obama-era rule, they were slated to be phased out by Jan. 1.
Michael Greenstone, who directs the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, said in an email that Perry would leave government with a mixed record.
“By all accounts, Secretary Perry stands out for running the DOE forthrightly and without seeking personal gain. But at the same time, his DOE has pursued policies, for example his efforts to increase coal usage on the grid, that seem to willfully ignore science and economics,” Greenstone said. “Ultimately, how one judges his tenure depends on how you add these factors up and whether you think they reflect his private views or the president’s positions.”