What Exactly Does the Department of Energy Do, and Is Rick Perry Qualified to Lead It? | KERA News

What Exactly Does the Department of Energy Do, and Is Rick Perry Qualified to Lead It?

Jan 19, 2017
Originally published on January 19, 2017 8:12 am

Today, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry goes before the U.S. Senate for his confirmation hearing in the hopes of becoming the next secretary of the Department of Energy. 

Of course, Perry famously derailed his presidential bid in 2011 by forgetting the department’s name even as he vowed to abolish it in a GOP primary debate. But, while the former governor may have been – and, according to a New York Times report, may still be – fuzzy on the agency's purview, he is certainly not the only one.

David Hart, who researches energy innovation at George Mason University, says there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to the Department of Energy (DOE).

“The biggest one is that most people think the department of energy mostly works on energy,” he says.

In fact, the department devotes much of its $30 billion dollar budget to maintaining and managing nuclear weapons. 

“In particular, making sure that the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons will function if ever called upon,” says Hart.

The DOE also acts as janitor for the country’s messy nuclear testing legacy.

“The people that created that waste didn’t always know how to take care of it responsibly and the country’s been dealing with cleaning up after that mess for a long time,” says Bill Hederman, who just wrapped up three years at the DOE as a senior advisor and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

The department’s other responsibilities include funding billions in research and development, setting energy efficiency standards for household appliances, working to update the country's power grid and managing the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve – a 700 million-barrel stockpile, Hederman says. 

Is Perry Qualified to Lead?

As Texas’ Governor Perry ran a state with its own deregulated energy grid. He oversaw a boom in oil and gas production and wind power, and worked to establish a nuclear waste dump in Texas. These are all things that track with the DOE's portfolio. And, even if many of Perry's priorities as governor provoked strong opposition during his tenure, he was still a capable leader. 

“There were a lot of people who disagreed with what he did, no question about it,” says Jay Root, a reporter for the Texas Tribune who wrote a book about Perry’s 2011 presidential bid. "He certainly had a fairly ambitious agenda the entire time he was governor, and he got a lot of it passed."

Still, much has been made of Perry’s lack of scientific credentials compared to outgoing Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is a nuclear physicist.

“Previous energy secretaries...were scientists themselves and really needed to learn how to relate to elected officials,” says Hart. “But, in that way, [Perry is] similar to the previous secretaries. They just have different kinds of learning to do.”

He added that he thinks it's important for Perry to have a trusted group of advisers guiding him through that learning process.

“A lot of the decisions really have a high technical content and those are hard decisions for somebody who doesn’t know the science.”

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