Irony abounded at former Governor Rick Perry’s hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee today. The first irony, already picked up by other outlets (see this useful Vox article), was that Perry did a turnabout by going all in to head the Department of Energy (DOE) and strongly defending the quality and importance of research at the agency he once wanted to kill, while a report in The Hill, brought up multiple times by the Democratic committee members, suggested that the Trump team was going to gut DOE’s budget.
Perry praised the national labs and DOE’s role in developing technology for fracking, as well as his hopes for breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), cybersecurity of the grid, and other parts of DOE’s mission. And as the bombshell hit the hearing room, Perry, to his credit, didn’t waiver. He said he had a lot of experience defending budgets and explicitly agreed to support the Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability and the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, both slated for elimination and big cuts, respectively, in the proposed budget blueprint being used by the transition team, according to The Hill. Perry even said there was a place for renewables research at DOE and that he hoped the transition team would have a change of heart and forget what they said, like he did!
While there are legitimate reasons to take a close look at DOE’s budget–any agency’s budget, for that matter--during a transition of power, the report by the Heritage Foundation, upon which this cutting is based, is way over the top. Many of the proposed cuts are to climate-related programs, climate being “outside of DOE’s mission.” DOE’s mission is to “ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.” The mission is a perfect fit for climate change in that climate action is needed in order to secure our environment and “prosperity” going forward and requires a slate of technological innovations and scientific research. Though Perry would not agree with Senator Sanders’s (I-Vermont) sentiments that climate change was an urgent matter that needed to be addressed with strong action, Perry did echo other nominees in not denying its existence, in addition to his promise to protect climate scientists and not gut certain offices or programs.
Most other cuts are justified in the Heritage report by saying DOE is investing in commercialization of technologies when it should be putting all its eggs in basic research. Perry, on the other hand, spent much of his time espousing the benefits of DOE labs and research funding. Eliminating these programs would, as Perry agreed, be a mistake, as scientific breakthroughs often need government help to become commercialized (to get out of the so-called “valley of death”). In fact, the UK faced this problem, as MPs in 2013 noted that Britain was “failing to secure the economic benefits of its world-class scientific research because the government has ‘no coherent innovation policy’ for commercializing discoveries.” A large aspect of DOE’s mission is in implementing such a policy to the benefits of the economy, including the private sector. The future of DOE may well depend on the strength of Governor Perry’s conversion to a DOE booster.
Some cuts, on the other hand, are simply based on denial of the future. The Office of Electricity would be killed because it shouldn’t be funding technological developments for improvements in the electricity grid. In fact, the past rapid reduction in renewables and forecasted growth in the future from both continued cost reductions and 29 states’ renewable mandates, will put great demands on a conventional grid, given the intermittency of wind and solar power. Any one utility does not have the incentive to do the R&D to make the grid smart enough to handle these conditions. So, there is a role for government.
The second irony was in the back and forth between Senator Daines (R-Montana) and Governor Perry. Sen. Daines complained about coal being disadvantaged by the Clean Power Plan to Perry, whose state has been responsible for most of coal’s troubles because of the cheap natural gas Texas and other states have produced following the shale revolution. Shale technology is an innovation that largely came out of Texas (with the help of DOE research, as Sen. Franken [D-Minnesota] pointed out). This sort of innovative, highly beneficial technology could be at risk with the suggested cuts. Daines is right, though, when he says that CCS technologies would save coal, and that he hopes DOE can help with that. But not if Heritage Foundation and the Trump transition team have their way.