Perry confirmed to lead an energy department at crossroads

Rick Perry was confirmed as Secretary of Energy, putting the former Texas governor at the head of an agency that deficit hawks want to see out of the business of boosting innovative technologies.

While many advisers to President Donald Trump want to eliminate the department’s funding for technologies such as flying wind turbines, Perry has offered a defense of its expansive role in helping nurture inventions — be they for clean coal or wind energy — into the marketplace.

The Senate voted 62-37 Thursday to confirm Perry to lead the department he once famously forgot that he wanted to eliminate. After being nominated to lead it, Perry apologized for that position, saying he realized the importance of a department that safeguards the nuclear arsenal, runs energy research laboratories and funds breakthrough energy innovations.

“This is a critical time for the Department, and it needs steady leadership as we pursue the broad benefits of energy innovation and greater security for our nation’s energy infrastructure,” said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Energy is one of the departments facing budget cuts to offset Trump’s pledge to boost military spending by $54 billion.

“He is going to have to defend the budget proposal from some cuts pushed by OMB,” said Dan Reicher, who served as the department’s Assistant Secretary of Energy during the Bill Clinton administration.

Perry, Texas’ longest-serving governor, advocated eliminating the Energy Department when he ran for president in 2011. Then, during a debate, he famously couldn’t recall that it was among the three agencies he favored shuttering.

Perry will oversee a disparate agency with an annual budget of around $30 billion. It’s work ranges from nuclear weapons safeguarding to the research into carbon-capture technology to maintaining the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Under President Barack Obama, it shifted its focus away from fossil fuels and toward clean and renewable energy research.

Trump vowed on the campaign trail to increase domestic oil, natural gas and coal production, and his Energy Department transition team included several critics of its spending on renewables and efficiency. His advisers have proposed that the department freeze its loan guarantee program, which has been used to help boost large-scale solar farms and nuclear construction. Even before Perry took over, Trump staffers moved to downgrade an office focused on scientific research that was established under the last secretary, Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist.

“Though every Energy Secretary doesn’t need to be a brilliant physicist to succeed, the Energy Department deserves a chief executive who genuinely cares about shaping our nation’s energy policy and overseeing our nuclear arsenal,” said California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who opposed his nomination. “Perry has not shown the knowledge or commitment to fulfill these vital roles.”

No Republicans voted against the nomination and 10 Democrats and independent Angus King joined in voting to confirm Perry.

Before the inauguration, Trump’s team team circulated a controversial questionnaire among Energy Department employees seeking to identify which workers went to meeting related to climate change. The document, which hinted at future scrutiny of the department’s complex of national labs and Obama administration clean energy programs, was disavowed by Perry.

“We certainly want to see him keep his word,” said Jeff Eagan, president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter at the Energy Department’s headquarters in Washington, said in an interview. “I had scientists in my office crying, terrified their names were going to be released.”

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