From the editor: Rick Perry, we know ye too well

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Former Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz is a nuclear physicist and ran the MIT Energy Initiative. Steven Chu won a Nobel Prize in physics. Samuel Bodman has a PhD in chemistry. Spencer Abraham helped found the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy while getting his law degree.

And then there was Rick Perry. In keeping with President Trump’s disregard for the norms of public office or technical qualifications, Perry’s main qualification for serving as secretary of energy was his former position as the governor of Texas. He was so removed from energy matters that he vowed to eliminate the Department of Energy during an abortive campaign for president, and then forgot which agencies he had planned to remove.

Tonight Secretary Perry alluded to his departure on Twitter (this was later confirmed by DOE, after denying it earlier in the day), after nearly all major media sources (Reuters, New York Times, etc.) reported that he had announced his resignation amidst the political maelstrom of the Ukraine scandal and President Trump’s impeachment hearings. Perry will leave the agency at an unspecified date later this year.

Looking back on Secretary Perry’s tenure at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), it is one that is marked by pandering to coal interests and a brazen attempt to save coal and nuclear power plants from market forces.

 

The hug & the (failed) bailout

Perhaps the most memorable moment from Rick Perry’s time at DOE was a meeting with coal boss Robert Murray, which was documented by whistleblower and former DOE photographer Simon Edelman. Edelman included a photo wherein Murray, the CEO of troubled coal company Murray Energy, gave Perry a document outlining an “action plan” to create a coal and nuclear bailout.

Edelman lost his job after leaking these photos to the press, but the photo of the bear hug between Perry and Murray lives on.

We at pv magazine extensively covered the resulting Grid Reliability and Resiliency Pricing rulemaking (including here, here and here), which threatened to skew the markets in favor of aging coal and nuclear power plants. The rulemaking was eventually rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) after widespread public outcry – including from former commissioners.

This may have been a lesson for Perry, who abandoned the effort. It may also have been a lesson for the Trump Administration, which has been sure to pack FERC with pro-fossil ideologues, leading to charges that Trump is politicizing a traditionally, technocratic, non-partisan agency.

Since that ruling there have been only minor scandals at DOE, with academics expressing concern over delayed studies and reports removed from the DOE site, but nothing of the caliber of the coal bailout that wasn’t.

Perry did give us a memorable line that expressed his fondness for fossil fuels as a solution to geopolitical problems, dubbing natural gas “molecules of freedom”, and “freedom gas”. It’s an odd name for a substance that has 25x the warming power of CO2 over a 100-year timeframe (per EPA), but has translated into the approval of a number of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities.

 

The work continues

Given the preference for fossil fuels, there was less drama in renewable energy programs at the agency than might have been expected. Repeated efforts by President Trump to slash the budgets for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), were rejected even when the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress.

The result is a DOE that continues to fund research, development and certain deployment programs for both solar and other forms of clean energy. Throughout Perry’s term, much of the DOE staff, contractors and staff in the agency’s network of national labs have continued a tradition of excellence in their work and repeatedly produced professional results, despite the scandals at the upper echelons of the organization.

This includes those who leaked information to the press before it could be tampered with by political appointees.

 

The Brouillette identity

Bloomberg’s reporting suggests that Undersecretary of Energy Dan Brouillette will take the reins after Perry departs. Brouillette is no newcomer to energy roles in the federal government, as he served as chief of staff to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Assistant Secretary of Energy for Congressional and Government Affairs, as well as on an obscure state energy board in his home state of Louisiana.

It’s been said that Brouillette has already taken over much of the approval of natural gas export facilities at DOE, and given his record of adherence to the Trump Administration talking points on fossil fuels there isn’t much likelihood of a sea change in policy.

Assuming that Brouillette gets the job, we’ll be reporting further on his background as we learn more about him.

If Brouillette takes over from Perry and accomplishes the same ends with less bad press and fumbling, this will follow a pattern. The resignation of scandal-ridden EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt led to the appointment of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who has followed the same path of dismantling environmental regulations, but more quietly and more effectively.

 

Update: This article was updated on October 18 at 9:40 AM EST to include details on Secretary Perry’s departure, as well as the status of DOE funding during his tenure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.