What to expect from Rick Perry’s confirmation hearings

The former Texas governor faces a critical test, as the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources weighs his fitness as potential head of the Department of Energy.

Kathy Willens/AP/File
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry smiles as he leaves Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 12, 2016. Mr. Perry's Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of Energy begins Thursday, Jan. 19.

Six years after he proposed eliminating the US Department of Energy, Rick Perry wants the Senate to let him run it.

During his 2012 bid for president, the former Texas governor dismissed the department, saying, “They’ve never created one bit of energy, the best I can tell.” But on Dec. 14, President-elect Donald Trump nominated him as Energy secretary, which conducts research into energy production, operates 17 national laboratories, and maintains the US nuclear arsenal. As Republican energy lobbyist Michael McKenna told The New York Times. “It’s been a learning curve” for Perry.

Consider Thursday's hearing a final exam for Mr. Perry, who championed the oil and gas industries in his home state of Texas. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – especially its 11 Democrats – will assess Perry’s knowledge of nuclear issues, climate change, and the Department of Energy's (DOE) research activities. But the hearing’s toughest questions will probably concern fossil fuels.

His ties to oil companies will likely be high on the agenda. When Mr. Trump nominated the former governor of Texas in December, The Christian Science Monitor reported that “a considerable amount of Perry’s wealth” has come from energy. Also, “after stepping down as Texas governor in 2015, Perry took on the role of board director at two oil companies, Energy Transfer Partners LP and Sunoco Logistics Partners LP – the joint developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline project.”

According to the Associated Press, Perry has pledged to divest from these two companies within three months of taking office. But the committee’s liberals will likely seek assurances that he won’t prioritize their interests as DOE secretary.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota, will likley want a supportive stance on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Army Corps of Engineers temporarily blocked in December. Perry won’t have direct authority over the controversial pipeline, but Senator Hoeven, who supports the project, probably hopes that the oil-boosting governor would create a climate favorable to oil and gas development.

But Perry will also need to avoid showing a preference for one type of fossil fuel over another. The committee’s members include Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the major coal-mining state of West Virginia, as well as senators from Alaska and Wyoming, which have prospered from oil and natural gas.

Perry’s support for the latter two energy sources could alienate him from coal miners, one of Trump’s core constituencies. Varun Sivaram, an energy security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Monitor’s Mark Trumbull that three of Trump’s picks for leadership roles – Perry, Rex Tillerson as State department head, and Scott Pruitt as head of the Environment Protection Agency – “represent a Trump administration that is going to pursue an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, and it's going to be particularly favorable toward the oil and gas industry.”

While Texas maintained its traditional role as a top driller for oil and natural gas during Perry's 14-year tenure as governor, the state also emerged as the leading producer of wind power in the United States and a top 10 provider of solar power. The DOE under Perry would likely continue to support growth renewable energy through tax incentives, the Associated Press reported.

Senator Manchin and West Virginia’s coal miners will want news to the contrary at today’s hearing. But even if Perry embraces coal, dropping prices for natural gas and renewables will likely guide the country’s energy future. Kevin Book, an energy policy analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, told Reuters that, "Even if Perry speeds up the DOE, the market remains the final arbiter.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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