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Confirmed as Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry has a big decision to make about the Energy Department

6 March 2017

Now that Rick Perry has been confirmed as Donald Trump’s energy secretary, we’re about to find out what he really believes — and what he’s willing to fight for, writes Brad Plumer for

Back when he was governor of Texas and running for president in 2011, Perry famously vowed to abolish the Department of Energy (DOE) — an agency with a $32 billion budget that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal and also funds energy research on everything from solar panels to carbon capture.

He’s since apologized for that. “After being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination,” he told a Senate panel in January. During his confirmation hearing, Perry also said he now believes the federal government had a vital role to play in energy R&D — including renewables.

But we’ll see if Perry actually meant what he said. The Trump administration is currently proposing sweeping budget cuts to a variety of domestic agencies, including the DOE. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation are calling on Trump to zero out the DOE’s energy programs, which account for 15 percent of the agency’s budget. That could include killing the Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, which has played a supporting role in lowering the cost of solar power, and axing ARPA-E, an incubator for long-shot, futuristic energy tech, according to

So will Perry push back against Trump’s cuts? During his confirmation hearing, when he was asked about this, he joked, awkwardly, that he hoped the White House would reconsider. “Maybe,” he told one senator, “they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that.” Later, when pressed, Perry argued that he’d advocate for the DOE’s energy programs, “but I may not be 1,000 percent successful.”

That hearing was the beginning of a potentially major fight over the role of federal energy research — and the role of the Department of Energy — going forward.

Many conservatives, particularly those at the Heritage Foundation, have long believed the federal government should have no role in promoting or helping develop various energy technologies apart from very, very basic scientific research.

In Heritage’s view, it’s okay for the DOE to fund, say, research on basic nuclear physics (which private companies don’t do). But the agency shouldn’t be working with private companies to demonstrate that a large carbon capture plant can be built (as DOE did in Texas with the Petra Nova CCS retrofit) or providing loan guarantees to budding solar or electric car companies (as DOE once did with Elon Musk’s Tesla or, less successfully, with Solyndra). Those latter roles should be left to the private sector, so that the federal government isn’t unfairly picking winners and losers.

But there are plenty of energy wonks who strongly disagree with this view. Their argument is that the private sector underinvests in risky new energy technologies that could have a huge social benefit down the road, particularly in tackling global warming. So there’s a real value to having the government fill this gap.

On this view, DOE has an absolutely critical role to play, not just in basic research but also in applied research, and in offering loan guarantees for risky demonstration projects, and in providing expertise and support to the private sector in commercializing new research. That sort of partnership is what enabled George Mitchell’s private company to develop and refine fracking, and it’s a good model for the sort of advanced energy tech we need to combat global warming.

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