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Rick Perry Offers Mixed Messages to Congress on Climate and Clean Energy

This post is part of WRI’s blog series, The Trump Administration. The series analyzes policies and actions by the administration and their implications for climate change, energy, economics and more.


At a Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, President Trump’s nominee to be the Secretary of Energy, faced questions on his views on climate change, potential budget cuts and clean energy. Perry’s answers offered little reassurance that the Trump administration would maintain the Department of Energy’s budget. He also showed a limited grasp of the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change, and did not make the connection to the need to transition to a low-carbon energy system.

Some of his answers were more encouraging, including recognition of the economic value of advanced research on energy technology and his view that the United States can cut emissions and expand the economy at the same time.

Here are some of the key quotes from Perry’s testimony, with context:

Climate Science

“I believe the climate is changing. Some is naturally occurring and some by man-made activity.”

Perry waffled on climate science throughout the hearing. When asked if he would commit to using science as his guide in making policy at DoE, he replied, "Far from me to sit before you and claim that I'm a climate scientist; I'm not going to do that," but then said, “My record as governor shows that that is the case.”

However, the evidence of man-made climate change is clear and overwhelming and is accepted by nearly the entire scientific community. In addition, most government agencies, including the Department of Defense, are making strategic decisions based on climate change and its projected impacts.

Science is now also deeply embedded in the decision-making processes of businesses and major institutions, which recognize the economic risks posed by global warming and the importance of pursuing sustainable business models. For example, more than 200 companies have now committed to setting targets to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in line with what’s needed to keep global temperature rise within 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels.

Budget Cuts

"This is not my first rodeo in dealing with budget shortfalls."

Before the hearing, The Hill reported that the incoming Trump administration would be making major federal budget cuts across government, including reductions to DoE’s budget.

Perry said that he would “protect all of the science, whether it’s related to the climate or [other projects].”

It was unclear whether Perry intended to defend the department’s budget or make do with less.

Coal and Jobs

“I am committed to an all-of-the-above policy.”

Asked by senators from coal-producing states how he would address the disparate impacts of the transition to cleaner energy, Perry said he supports a range of fuels, but did not express an intention to focus on the coal industry, as Donald Trump did during his presidential campaign.

When asked about DoE investment in coal research, Perry responded generally: “I am committed to an all-of-the-above policy, with the knowledge and the history of being an individual that believes in finding more efficient, more effective, more positive impact on our environment technologies."

Over the last decade, DoE has played a significant role in developing new energy technology, from hydraulic fracturing to advanced solar panels and energy efficiency. These investments have helped to diversify the U.S. energy portfolio and have been a driver of innovation and job creation.

During this time, the coal sector has been particularly hard hit, with coal production experiencing an eight-year decline in the U.S., and a 17 percent drop last year. Perry did not outline his view on a role for the federal government in supporting communities that are burdened by the transitions taking place in our energy system.

Expanding Economies, Cutting Emissions

“I’ve seen the 12th largest economy in the world lower carbon emissions by 17 percent.”

One welcome surprise from the hearing, given his past statements on climate science, was Perry’s repeated insistence that U.S. states could expand their economies while cutting emissions.

Citing his record as governor, Perry said, “I’ve seen the 12th largest economy in the world (Texas) lower carbon emissions by 17 percent, SOX (sulfur dioxide) by 66 percent and NOX (nitrogen oxide) by 58 percent. That’s real reductions that make a difference in the environment of the world. And if we can see that type of technology, that type of effort, that type of competitive pressure, if you will, to places like China, then we have served the citizens of this world well.”

A recent brief from Brookings Institution showed that 33 U.S. states, including Texas, had decoupled economic growth from carbon emissions between 2000 and 2014. During this period, the Texas economy grew 50.5 percent and emissions grew by only 1.1 percent. As a whole, between 2008-2015, the U.S. economy grew by more than 10 percent, while carbon emissions fell by 9.5 percent.

Perry’s testimony, however, failed to deliver a broader vision of how the U.S. can sustain large-scale emissions reductions from the energy sector necessary to achieve its emissions targets and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Energy Research

"There is a role for the Department of Energy as we go forward continuing to find technological advances.”

Perry offered assurances that he would maintain the DoE’s research programs.

In answer to a question on wind energy research, Perry said, "There is a role for the Department of Energy as we go forward continuing to find technological advances, whether it's on turbines, blade design or some other aspect.”

Perry pointed to examples of research in Texas, demonstrating his awareness of how clean energy technology can open new business opportunities. But his enthusiasm for DoE research will be for naught if the Trump administration and Congress move forward with sweeping budget cuts, including for research and development, which is one of the important roles that DoE has in supporting U.S. technology and innovation.

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