Why Perry's flip-flop on agency he now leads is a good thing
© Getty Images

While running for president in 2011, current Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryTexas governor signs 'fetal heartbeat' abortion bill Tomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021 Overnight Energy: Michigan reps reintroduce measure for national 'forever chemicals' standard |  White House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill MORE proposed to eliminate the department that he now heads. At his confirmation hearing, he expressed regret that he made that proposal. Now that he has been confirmed, he should take the next step and become a vigorous advocate for the department's vital work, particularly the function for which it is named: energy.

Longtime residents of the nation's capital have a term for this kind of a shift. They call it "going native." Critics may view it as capitulation to a bureaucratic imperative. After all, few chief executives want their organizations to shrink. But it might equally well be seen as education.

As Perry explained in his testimony, he changed his mind because he "learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the [Department of Energy]."

Like the former Texas governor, many Americans do not understand what the Department of Energy (DOE) does. It is responsible for the nation's nuclear weapons and for cleaning up the environmental mess at the facilities that built those weapons. The agency is also a major funder of basic research, especially physical science and engineering.

But most important, DOE is working to enable the nation's transition from dirty to clean energy, a transition supported by the vast majority of Americans, including most Republicans and even those who are skeptical that humans are changing the climate.


This last role, the one that most Americans naturally associate with DOE, comprises less than a quarter of its budget and is the most vulnerable to being cut. A proposal advanced last year by the Heritage Foundation — which has reportedly been adopted as a blueprint by senior Trump administration officials — would gut it. Heritage calls for the elimination of the Offices of Electricity, Fossil Energy, and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, along with massive cuts to the Office of Nuclear Energy.


Innovative programs that bridge the "valley of death" between scientific research on energy and its practical application, such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), would also be gutted.

The timing of such cuts could not be worse. The United States has a historic opportunity to refashion its inefficient, brittle, dirty system for producing, delivering, and consuming energy into one that is built for this new century: cheap, flexible and clean.

The country should be taking full advantage of emerging technologies like solar power, new techniques like green building, and new systems of distributed management that allow homes and cars to generate, store, and transmit energy rather than merely consume it. This transformation will limit the damage our energy system does to the global climate while strengthening the American economy and expanding freedom.

But it won't be easy. The energy system is gigantic, accounting for more than a trillion dollars a year of economic activity in the United States alone. (That's "trillion" with a "T.") It supports millions of jobs and is backed by deep-pocketed companies and investors. Above all, it must continue to function reliably while being transformed — the lights must go on when Americans flip their switches.

This opportunity will be lost if, as President Trump has argued, current energy markets are left to their own devices. Dirty energy has too big a head start and too many ways to thwart progress. Federal, state and local government agencies all have levers that they need to pull in order to nudge markets in the right direction and unleash the extraordinary power of America’s energy innovators and entrepreneurs. DOE should be leading this process, coordinating change across this vast system, so that no one is left in the dark.

The proposed budget cuts would destroy vital DOE functions like the development of standards that save Americans billions of dollars every year by making homes and factories more efficient. They would halt work on new designs for power plants, storage systems, and transmission lines that would nurture the emerging "energy internet" (a phrase coined by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman). They would undercut funding for research and development and technology diffusion with the potential to help wean our transportation system off what President George W. Bush called America's "addiction to oil."

Perry's home state of Texas is a national leader in energy system transformation, its status as a hub of the oil and gas industry notwithstanding. Texas leads in renewable energy, harnessing the wind and sun of its vast plains to power its growing cities, due in part to actions that Perry took during his three terms as governor. Texas leads in market design, allowing energy customers freedom of choice that they never had in the past. And, as Perry likes to point out, the economy of Texas thrived during his gubernatorial tenure.

Perry can lead the nation along the path that Texas has pioneered, but only if he sustains DOE's key energy functions, working closely with allies at the White House, in Congress and across the country as well as in the department itself.

Only a strong DOE can engage effectively with the defenders of the old energy system, cultivate the green shoots of the new one, and ensure that the lights stay on in the meantime.

So "go native," Mr. Secretary! The future depends on it.

David Hart is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the leading U.S. science and tech policy think tank, and professor of public policy and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. Follow him on Twitter @ProfDavidHart.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.