Climate skeptic Rick Perry is Trump’s pick to lead DOE

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, right, enters Trump Tower with Trump aide Madeleine Westerhout, before meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

President-elect Donald Trump plans to select former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, according to the Associated Press and multiple other reports.

Perry, 66, famously forgot DOE was one of three departments he would eliminate five years ago during a Republican presidential primary debate. “Sorry. Oops,” he said.

As Texas governor from 2000 to 2015, Perry oversaw a natural gas and oil drilling boom, the state became the country’s top wind power producer, and coal-fired power generation thrived — even as other states decreased reliance on the energy source due to pollution concerns. Like Trump, Perry has said he is skeptical of climate change, despite overwhelming scientific evidence.

It’s unknown how Perry’s energy background might translate to leading an agency charged with a broad range of duties, from overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons, to cleaning up nuclear waste and conducting research at 17 national laboratories. DOE has a budget of $30 billion — larger than agencies such as NASA, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, but far smaller than the state of Texas’ $110 billion in annual spending.

Perry, if confirmed by the Senate, would oversee Idaho National Laboratory and its more than $900 million budget and 4,000 employees. He also would oversee the Idaho Cleanup Project and its 1,700 employees, charged with conducting more than $1 billion in legacy radioactive waste cleanup work over the next several years.

INL Director Mark Peters and other national laboratory directors are in Washington, D.C., this week meeting with members of Trump’s transition team. A lab spokeswoman declined to comment on the transition process or the selection of Perry.

Perry’s background — he was previously a Texas agriculture commissioner and has a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Texas A&M — would be a stark contrast to that of Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary since 2013. Moniz is a nuclear physicist who worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and previously within the DOE as an under secretary.

Moniz gained international prominence last year when he and other DOE officials played a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, as well as the Paris climate accord — both of which Trump has repeatedly criticized.

Before Moniz, in Obama’s first term, Steven Chu was energy secretary. Chu also had a deep scientific background as a physicist, previously served as a professor and national laboratory director, and won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.

Perry would join at least one other prominent climate change skeptic in Trump’s cabinet: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who Trump picked to lead the EPA. Trump previously called climate change a “hoax,” then recently appeared to moderate his stance. But over the weekend he told Fox News that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real, despite widespread scientific agreement that humans are causing it.

Perry has also called climate change a “hoax,” even claiming that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” He made the comments at a campaign event in 2011.

“The science is not settled on this,” Perry said at a 2011 presidential primary debate. “The idea that we would put American’s economy at jeopardy, based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me is nonsense.”

Trump has said little about his plans for DOE, other than stressing on the campaign trail he would support oil, natural gas and coal. A transition questionnaire recently distributed to DOE officials provided additional clues about the type of department Perry might lead over the next four years. It appeared critical of DOE climate change research and clean energy development, but also indicated support for nuclear power research, a positive for INL.

While Perry knows about fossil fuel drilling as well as wind power — an energy source that took off in Texas due to federal incentives — it doesn’t appear he has much experience with nuclear power. Texas has two operating commercial nuclear power plants.

The transition questionnaire also provided concrete evidence the new administration is interested in reviving Yucca Mountain, the Nevada nuclear waste repository mothballed for the past five years. The project would be key for Idaho, which has nowhere to send its 300 metric tons of government-owned spent nuclear fuel.

Yet Perry has said he doesn’t support Yucca. He said at a 2011 debate that if Nevadans didn’t want Yucca, it should be up to them and another state would see the economic benefit of such a facility and build a repository instead.

Perry did become familiar with radioactive waste as governor. He helped push through a 1,300-acre private facility for disposing of low-level radioactive waste that started operations in 2012. Run by Waste Control Specialists, it was the first such U.S. facility licensed in decades. It is one of four sites that accept such radioactive waste in the U.S., and has taken waste from the Idaho cleanup effort before. Waste Control Specialists is one of the subcontractors involved in the Idaho Cleanup Project.

Perry beat out at least three other prominent contenders for the energy secretary job, according to several news reports. They included two Democratic senators from major energy-producing states, and a Texas investor and member of Trump’s finance team.

“This nomination defies all logic,” Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement. He mocked Perry’s gaffe in 2011 — forgetting the department he has now been tapped to lead.

Re-runs and mentions of Perry’s 2011 debate slip-up — seen as a major factor in derailing his presidential bid — were trending across various social media platforms Tuesday.

“It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” he said, gesturing toward fellow candidate Ron Paul “Commerce, education and the, uh … um, what’s the third one there? Let’s see.

“I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth