Having only been established in 1977, the Department of Energy is still in its infancy compared to many of the other Cabinet-level departments in the United States government. The creation of the department, like much of the energy policy at the time (e.g., introduction of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), implementation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, etc.), was rooted in the anxiety brought about by the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo. With the price of oil nearly quadrupling during the crisis, government officials saw a need to streamline and house federal energy initiatives under one roof.
Today, the Department of Energy is one of the most intriguing and diverse entities within the federal bureaucracy and is responsible for a number of critical tasks. Most of what the department does has to do with its supervision of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal which represents 60 percent of its $27 billion budget. The department oversees a system of national research laboratories and technology centers that have and continue to play key roles in developing hydraulic fracturing, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other groundbreaking innovations within the energy sector. The Department of Energy also facilitates further research into renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, directed the research for the Human Genome Project.
Given these functions, the department’s name may be something of a misnomer. It is not the Department of Energy, but rather the Department of Interior that manages the nation’s vast mineral resources on federally-controlled land. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has historically been the primary vehicle used by the federal government to regulate the energy industry.
Last month, President-elect Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate former Texas Governor Rick Perry to serve as Secretary of Energy. Perry, one of the most accomplished state governors in recent memory, is perfectly qualified to run the department.
In response to his selection, critics have protested that Perry can’t legitimately run a department he (rather infamously) vowed to eliminate during his own campaign for president in 2012. Others have suggested that Perry, with only an undergraduate degree in animal sciences, doesn’t have the requisite educational qualifications to be Secretary of Energy. Indeed, the two men to hold the position during the Obama Administration, Steven Chu and Ernest J. Moniz, both have PhDs in physics.
Both of these criticisms, however, are off the mark.
Ignoring for a second whether or not the Department of Energy should exist in the first place, there has been no indication from President-elect Trump that he would like to see the department abolished. While Perry will likely have fairly wide latitude in determining how he wants to manage the department, he will ultimately be responsible for enacting the president’s priorities and agenda. So what if Perry wants to see the Department of Energy eliminated? If anything, his critical eye could be helpful in ensuring that the department only engages in those activities prescribed by Congress while guarding against any sort of mission creep.
While it is certainly true that Secretaries Chu and Moniz both had impressive backgrounds in nuclear physics, this sort of academic credential has historically been more of an exception rather than the rule for secretaries of energy. As John Daniel Davidson recently noted in The Federalist, the first person to hold the position, James R. Schlesinger, was a trained economist. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, the secretaries of energy had a variety of educational backgrounds with not a single one being a trained physicist. The idea that Perry should be automatically disqualified from holding the position because of his academic course of study is patently absurd.
The principle reason why Perry is qualified to be Secretary of Energy is the wealth of executive and managerial experience that he brings to the table. Before serving as governor of Texas for 14 years, the longest such tenure in state history, Perry was the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. In these capacities, he was responsible for managing large numbers of public employees and, while governor, overseeing a budget several times larger than that of the Department of Energy. Furthermore, as governor of the largest energy-producing state in the nation, Perry was a vocal proponent of not only fossil fuels, but also the wind industry. His holistic understanding of the energy sector will be an asset when it comes to prioritizing the department’s grant and loan programs.
Governor Rick Perry’s background and prior experience make him eminently qualified to be the next Secretary of Energy and a valuable addition to what is shaping up to be an impressive Cabinet.