Rick Perry no longer wants to kill the Energy Department, just gut its programs

Rick Perry, the new head of the Department of Energy (DOE), defended Trump’s proposed cuts to his department in a hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations on Tuesday, assuring Congress that the DOE does “many things, many things well.” Perry asserted that despite the budget cuts, the DOE would focus on a number of straightforward goals. However, given the fact that many critical programs at the DOE are on the chopping block, including those dealing with R&D, renewable energy and climate change, members of the committee had a hard time drinking Perry’s Kool-Aid.

While you no longer propose to eliminate the Department of Energy, your budget requests would do grievous harm to American families.

“While you no longer propose to eliminate the Department of Energy, your budget requests would do grievous harm to American families by abandoning scientific innovation, and ignoring the pressing threat of climate change,” said Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) in her opening remarks. “We are at a pivotal moment in world history, as there is still time to protect our planet from the disastrous impacts of climate change, yet your budget proposes to reduce energy efficiency and renewable energy by a staggering $1.43 billion, or 69.3%.”

As has been typical in this administration, Perry’s DOE isn’t making climate change a priority, or even really acknowledging it. Trump’s proposed budget calls for the “elimination of climate change initiatives” within the DOE, zeroes out funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and reduces funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) by 70%. It should also be noted that this week Perry ascended in the ranks of Cabinet climate deniers when he asserted in an interview with CNBC that carbon dioxide was not the “control knob” for climate change.

While Perry’s absurd statement about carbon dioxide wasn’t mentioned in the hearing, committee members did question Perry over the budget’s implications for renewable energy and climate change programs. In her opening statement, representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) expressed deep concern over the downscaling for non-defense sectors of the DOE, stating that the cuts added up to “a big worry.” She went on to read from a letter from all of the Assistant Secretaries of Energy who led the EERE between 1989 and 2017, which condemns the proposed cuts:

While we have not always agreed on the relative emphasis of various elements of the EERE budget we are unified that cuts of this magnitude in the proposed FY18 budget will do serious harm to this office’s critical work and America’s energy future.

“The U.S. remains, despite recent efforts to reduce funding, a leader in innovation,” said Kaptur. “But this budget I fear cedes that leadership to china and other nations in the energy and basic science sectors.”

Later in the hearing, Lowey explained that although the proposed cuts to the DOE don’t appear to be as drastic as those to other agencies (the DOE cuts are a little over 5%, whereas the EPA faces slashes of over 30%), the true extent of the cuts are obfuscated by increases in funding for DOE defense projects.

Unfortunately, your budget is filled with false choices.

Increases of 11.2% for the National Nuclear Security Administration, [and] 9.3% for atomic energy defense activities mean that energy and science programs would be decimated with a 30% cut,” said Lowey. “Unfortunately, your budget is filled with false choices…reducing investments in clean energy jobs…Just another broken by the Trump administration.”

Perry, for his part, defended the budget as making some difficult choices, but explained that “the president’s proposal prioritizes the core mission of the department by consolidating duplication within our agency in order to respect the American taxpayer.” He went on to implore Congress to consider that “just because there’s a line item, that has a particular name in it, and a particular direction,” that it doesn’t mean that “somehow or other we’re going to back away from that effort. We’re not.” If that sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is.

Much of the rest of the hearing was taken up by committee members expressing their concerns for many programs that were in danger, including grid upgrades, cyber security, renewable energy, and R&D labs across the country. Perry responded mostly by dodging the specifics of the proposed cuts, and assuring the committee that the DOE wasn’t moving away from these projects, simply reallocating resources,

Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) questioned Perry on how the proposed cuts might affect innovation in the clean transportation space. “As you may know, the fuel cell technology [for hydrogen cars] is there, and the state of California has been pushing that pretty hard,” explained Calvert. “But your budget has cuts of more than 50% for fuel cell activities, even though your department has been pushing for fuel cells…How you feel about hydrogen as a potential fuel?”

Perry assured Calvert that the DOE is “pretty much all of the above, hydrogen being one of all of the aboves.” But he didn’t bother clarifying how the DOE would help hydrogen technology advance given the proposed cuts, opting instead to explain that he believed the technology should be tested in the private sector, not hindered by restrictions and regulations of DOE funding.

Perry responded similarly when questioned about DOE cuts to hydropower projects, avoiding specifics and assuring the committee that he was interested in the project. “I agree…that we need to be looking at an all the above energy approach,” Perry repeated. “And I think taking a source of energy, particularly good, clean, low-emission, no-emission off of the playing field is not wise, for a lot of reasons.” Of course, he didn’t directly address the DOE cuts.

One spot where many representatives seemed happy was the budget’s emphasis on dealing with America’s nuclear waste. In his opening statement, Perry had stressed the important mission that the DOE had to play across a variety of different fields, including the testing, safety and design of nuclear weapons, and the cleanup for nuclear waste; moreover, the budget allocates $120 million for a large nuclear waste registry in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) was among the committee members praising this cleanup effort, stating “it should come as no surprise we are very supportive of the work we need to do at Yucca Mountain…we need to get it open and used as a repository for the future.”

It’s important to remember how far Perry has come in his appreciation of the DOE. In 2012, when he was running for president, he promised to completely abolish the entire department. He’s changed his opinion since then, going as far as saying “after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” Now he’s even able to say the department “does many things, many things well.”

The true test will be how it’s doing at the end of his tenure.