Gov. Rick Perry Would Put Science and Scientists at Risk as Energy Secretary
After a 30-year career in Texas politics, Gov. Rick Perry could soon arrive in Washington, D.C., to serve as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE. Thus far, public discussion of Perry’s nomination has focused on his denial of climate change, his ties to the fossil fuel industry, and his 2011 debate gaff in which he proposed eliminating the DOE but forgot its name. To pursue its mission, the DOE relies on principles of scientific integrity, worker protections, and technology neutrality. Perry’s record and position on a number of energy issues serve as a measure of his ability to uphold these principles and advance the DOE mission.
DOE relies on scientific integrity and objectivity
Current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has described his department’s mission as “windmills and weapons, quarks and quagmires.” These four terms describe the DOE’s efforts to advance clean energy technologies; maintain the nation’s nuclear stockpile; undertake scientific research and development, or R&D; and continue progress on cleaning up the Manhattan Project’s legacy of nuclear waste. DOE experts also uphold these principles while utilizing the capabilities of the 17 National Laboratories and through their partnerships across the government, with universities and industry, and with other countries. Each of the department’s mission areas contains complex technical and policy issues with potential economic, environmental, and security impacts for the United States.
The more than 100,000 women and men who make up the department’s workforce unite this diverse mission through their use of interdisciplinary facilities and resources and by applying principles of scientific integrity and objectivity to R&D, technical and policy analysis, and technology commercialization. They rely on funding that may now become uncertain and federal workplace protections under attack by the 115th Congress and President-elect Donald Trump.
Throughout its history, the DOE has relied on scientific integrity and objectivity to accomplish goals across its mission areas. The department’s reviews of technology and policy carried out objective assessments of energy R&D and infrastructure, analyzed vulnerabilities and opportunities, and recommended paths forward based on the data that led to bipartisan legislation. Working in concert with the White House and U.S. Department of State, the DOE aided the successful negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement. In doing so, the department burnished its reputation as a collaborative, science-first agency.
These accomplishments and many more set a high bar for the incoming administration and Perry, should he become energy secretary.
Perry’s record on scientific integrity is weak
Scientific integrity ensures that trustworthy information reaches decisionmakers and the public by relying on transparency, peer review and open discussion, the involvement of experts based on their own integrity and experience, and the removal of political influence. The DOE and its National Laboratories depend on and exercise these values to deliver new technologies as flashy as 3-D printed cars and as transformative as wide band-gap semiconductors. More importantly, the department and its laboratories apply their values across collaborative efforts with universities, industries, and other countries to deliver new business opportunities, enhance trade, and meet international goals, such as curbing climate change. The Clean Energy Ministerial, one example of this collaborative work, brings energy departments from more than 24 countries together to tackle common obstacles to technology deployment.
Perry has repeatedly failed to meet such standards of integrity when interacting with the scientific community or using scientific information in policymaking. Perry’s denial of climate change is a prime example: He claimed in 2011 that climate change was “scientific theory that’s not settled yet.” This stands in sharp contrast to the body of evidence and scientific consensus that the science behind climate change and humanity’s role in it is unequivocal. On Perry’s watch, the Texas environmental agency even censored a report on sea level rise in Galveston Bay to remove climate change references.
More unsettling, while Perry was governor, Texas brought more than 20 lawsuits against the federal government regarding clean air, water, and land regulations—many of which challenged scientifically supported limits on pollution. His aides cherry-picked pollution data to skew Texas’ record and argue that the state deserved more credit for reducing its air pollution when counting all sources revealed the less rosy reality. As Texas agriculture commissioner, Perry argued against the adoption of an ecology textbook that he claimed peddled “junk science.” Significantly, Perry made this argument after receiving more than $125,000 in campaign contributions from agriculture groups that opposed this textbook.*
Perry’s record throughout his career in Texas government reveals political habits that overshadow any shred of scientific integrity. In his upcoming confirmation hearing, senators should press Perry on how he would uphold the department’s recently reaffirmed commitment to scientific integrity and freedom of expression.
Undermining the DOE workforce and health standards and politicizing agency funding would endanger us all
Perry’s tendency to politicize scientific fact extends to his treatment of worker protections such as health and exposure standards. As a state legislator, for example, Perry weakened the Texas Agriculture Commission’s authority by passing legislation that established a governor-appointed oversight body. This move put workers’ health at risk by allowing political appointees to oversee the handling of pesticides and other public health standards. Later, after Karl Rove and the agriculture industry recruited him to run for agricultural commissioner himself, Perry fired state officials in charge of enforcing public health standards for pesticide use and farm work protections. Enforcement of a pesticide disclosure law aimed at protecting farm worker health dropped precipitously: As commissioner, Perry levied less than half the fines applied by his predecessor and instituted zero suspension days. By 1995, farm workers unions and environmental advocates requested that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remove Perry’s authority to regulate pesticides entirely.
Perry’s legislative voting record clearly indicates his lack of concern for public health with regard to hazardous materials. In 1985, he voted against seeking punitive damages against hazardous waste polluters and against denying hazardous waste permits for landfills in flood plains. In 1987, he voted against minimum groundwater quality standards.
In light of his history of dismissing worker protections and public health standards and his penchant for following the lead of his donors, Perry’s cozy relationship with a Texas hazardous and nuclear waste company present a cautionary tale to the DOE staff who work on nuclear cleanup sites and to the communities near them. The decades-long task of cleaning up the legacy of the Manhattan Project includes removing, treating, and storing radioactive waste, decontaminating and decommissioning facilities, remediating soil and groundwater, and reducing risks across DOE sites. These responsibilities call for continued worker protections, high standards for public health, and the removal of politics from decisionmaking. DOE and National Laboratory employees and the residents of Paducah, Kentucky; Richland, Washington; Aiken, South Carolina; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and other communities near DOE sites should take note.
Nurturing a level playing field and growing emerging energy technologies
As the lead federal funder of energy R&D—with recipients in the National Laboratory system, universities, and small and large industrial partners, the DOE invested $10.7 billion in 2016. To guide federal investment in a portfolio of technologies, the department uses competitive funding opportunities and performance benchmarking to assess their costs and benefits to society and select and evaluate recipients. Much like the DOE’s technical and policy assessments, these investments rely on scientific integrity and objectivity, not political favoritism.
Here, Perry falls short of exhibiting neutrality in championing energy technologies and even in understanding the department’s role in energy markets. The list of Perry’s donors from the fossil fuel industry is long, and it mirrors the influence he has exercised on policy and science. Despite supporting wind power in Texas, he failed to support nonwind renewable generation, signed tax breaks for natural gas, and expedited coal power plant siting as governor. His 2011 energy plan leaned heavily on ideas framed by the American Petroleum Institute. His positions on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, building the Keystone XL pipeline, and fracking and exporting natural gas tip his hand in terms of his objectivity toward energy fuels and technologies.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a long-standing and vocal opponent of environmental, worker, and public health protections and a climate denier. His record stands at odds with the principles of the Department of Energy.
*Authors note: See Stephen Power, “Text fight reignites discussion; Commissioner urges districts to reject book,” Dallas Morning News, November 19, 1995, p. A45; Stephen Power, “Some parents see politics in text rejection; Trustees: Science book has errors, is slanted,” Dallas Morning News, March 23, 1996, p. J1.
Luke H. Bassett is the Associate Director of Domestic Energy Policy at American Progress.
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Associate Director, Domestic Energy and Environment Policy