Will Rick Perry Be the Best (or Worst) Energy Secretary Ever?

Will Rick Perry Be the Best (or Worst) Energy Secretary Ever?
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Former Texas governor Rick Perry has defied the odds, thrown off all the political tea reader predictions and managed to do the unthinkable — he's back in a position of power and this time it's as a member of the President's cabinet, a job on the national stage as Department of Energy Secretary.

He's rising, all Phoenix-like, from the ashes of his political career to be reborn as the head of an agency that oversees our country's energy policy, handles nuclear weapons and the resultant nuclear waste and hands out more than $30 billion each year to various entities who carry out energy-related missions.

Now, the question is which Perry will show up.

Perry is a fascinating character on the political stage. Over his many years in politics, he has been both the canniest operator in the room and the buffoon who makes ridiculous mistakes in full view of the public eye. It's been a steady string of missteps from his early days as lieutenant governor (the infamous "Adios, mofo" bit after he was pulled over by a cop for speeding) to his post-presidential bid stint on Dancing With the Stars last year.

At the same time, Perry has also managed to survive. And hell, sometimes he has even shown us that he's more than just a beautiful head of hair. His attempt to score the GOP presidential nomination this time around revealed a Perry that was surprisingly nuanced and measured, as we then noted. He was also the only one to stand up to president-elect Donald Trump, though ultimately Perry got out on the trail and stumped for Trump in the general election, which is probably why he now has his new gig.

So how will he do as energy secretary? It's been fascinating to watch everyone from Politico to Pro Publica to The New York Times explore this question, creating competing narratives about Perry. Is he the putz who couldn't even remember the name of the government agency he planned to get rid of, the one he will now run? Or is he a "serious policymaker who led a state where energy is huge business," as Politico has noted, and as Perry's Republican friends and colleagues are contending as they work in tandem to reshape Perry's political image. Is he going to be the guy who ramps up the nuclear weapons program, the way The New York Times hypothesizes, or a secret promoter of green energy policies, as NBC speculates?

Based on Perry's record, he may be a little bit of all of the above.

For one thing, Perry has made and will probably continue to make plenty of mistakes. But he always bounces back, like the Terminator. The "oops" heard 'round the world is key on this one. In a nearly seamless achievement, during that debate in 2011, Perry managed to end his presidential aspirations and become a national joke in less than 50 words. He also reinforced the popular view of him on the national stage, that Perry is a lightweight in the brains department. (This supposition isn't Perry's alone. It seems that the country routinely expects drawling Texas politicians to be stupid.)

Some say that Perry's lack of scholarly acumen (he got a D in meat class at Texas A&M University, after all) means he has no business running the Department of Energy. The first energy secretary, James Schlesinger, earned a bunch of degrees, including a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. The current energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, is a nuclear physicist who got his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford and used to work at MIT. However, Perry has run Texas and that translates to a ton of experience dealing intimately with the beast that is the oil industry, which is arguably something that previous energy secretaries did not bring to the table.

At the same time, Perry isn't just about oil. While he governed Texas, natural gas production climbed 50 percent, while oil production soared by 260 percent, as NBC pointed out. But that wasn't the only place there was growth. Wind energy exploded in growth under Perry, rocketing from only 116 megawatts of production in 2000 to more than 11,000 megawatts in 2013 when he left office.

Since it was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the Department of Energy has covered a number of different issues, including protecting the energy security of the country, promoting scientific and technological innovation, and cleaning up the national nuclear weapons complex. Right now, the department spends about half of its budget managing the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons and cleaning up environmental waste in Washington State that resulted from nuclear weapons production. The department also runs labs focused on climate change.

The nuclear weapons aspect is thus a huge part of the job. The thing is, Perry can't just change these programs willy-nilly — a lot of that money is dedicated to specific programs and that's how it is.

However, when it comes to the rest of the Department of Energy's budget, about $10 billion, he will have something to work with.

There's a lot Perry doesn't know, but he certainly is good at handing out taxpayer money in the form of government grants to the energy industry, as Pro Publica recently reported. He's so good at it that when he handed out money through the Texas Enterprise Fund, the entity he created as a piggy bank to help him court companies to come to Texas, some of the money he gave out as incentives to companies to build or expand their facilities in Texas actually went to projects that never came into being, like Chevron's planned office building in downtown Houston. Meanwhile, $222 million had been given out to companies that hadn’t even formally applied for funds or made concrete promises for job creation. A lot of money also went to Perry's political supporters as well, Pro Publica notes.

Of course, back then he still had ambitions of being president, so maybe that had something to do with the way he dealt the funds. But now Perry has tried and failed enough to become commander-in-chief that he may have concluded that the heady dream of being president will never become reality. His performance as head of the energy department may depend on just how ambitious he still is. Perry has proved over and over again he can survive just about anything — even being indicted and arrested. Now we have to see if he can do the even more difficult task in front of him — let go of his ambitions and do the job.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray