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Rick Perry wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy — now he is said to be Trump's pick to run it

Rick Perry holds the Department of Energy in such low regard that in a presidential primary debate five years ago, he famously couldn’t even remember it was on the list of federal agencies he wanted to eliminate.

Now President-elect Donald Trump appears to be on the verge of picking the former Texas governor to run the department that builds and maintains nuclear weapons, regulates fracking and offshore drilling and monitors the Iran nuclear deal, among its many responsibilities.

In Perry, Trump would have another oil industry ally and climate-change skeptic in his Cabinet. And like several other Trump choices so far, Perry is deeply skeptical of the department he would lead.

Perry’s disdain for the Energy Department — or, rather, his inability to articulate it — helped sink his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in the fall of 2011.   

“It's three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and, the, uh, what's the third one there?” Perry said during a primary debate. “Commerce, Education and the, uh, the, uh…,"

He continued. "The third agency of government I would do away with — the Education, uh, the, uh, Commerce, and let's see — I can't ... the third one, I can't. I'm sorry. ... Oops."

It was one of the more awkward moments in the history of presidential politics. Perry finally remembered later in the debate that the agency he was reaching for was Energy.

Perry’s background and worldview contrast starkly with the Energy secretaries under President Obama, both of whom are physicists — one a winner of the Nobel Prize, the other a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Obama’s secretaries’ extensive background in science helped them chart a course for an agency that takes the lead in managing America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons as well as global nonproliferation efforts. The current Energy secretary, Ernest J. Moniz, was deeply involved in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, which Perry has said should be scrapped. 

Officials from the Trump transition team declined Tuesday to confirm the widespread media reports that Perry was Trump’s pick, but they did heap praise on the former Texas governor when asked.

“We are big fans of Gov. Perry’s,” said transition spokesman Jason Miller. “He did a fantastic job with the state of Texas. As we talk about the Texas economic revival, a lot of that had to do with the energy sector and the growth that the state saw during Gov. Perry’s watch. He is very skilled, very talented.”

The officials would not say whether Trump favors the Perry proposal to eliminate the Energy Department. But transition spokesman Sean Spicer cautioned against reading too much into the policy plans of any nominee.

“It is [Trump’s] agenda being implemented,” he said. “Not somebody else’s.” 

During the period Perry was governor, from 2000 to 2015, Texas did, indeed, experience a jobs boom. Much of it was linked to the state’s vast energy resources, which Perry worked aggressively with oil and gas firms to develop. The former governor also traveled the nation seeking to lure companies from other states to relocate to Texas, boasting that his state’s low tax rates and lax regulation would boost profits.

Perry frequently traveled to California to make such pitches, jokingly calling them “hunting trips.” The swaggering Texan also has a taste for the Hollywood spotlight, competing on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” this year. 

Texas was in many ways the anti-California during the Perry administration. It took a lead in defying Obama administration policies on climate change and healthcare that Perry and other GOP governors complained threatened to inhibit economic growth.

Major environmental groups immediately announced opposition to Perry, expressing alarm at the former Texas governor’s history of doubting climate science and flouting federal conservation efforts. 

“The Cabinet choices become more absurd every day,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Yet again, Trump has chosen an unqualified individual who is at war with the central mission of the agency he is being nominated to lead.”

Environmental groups also charged that Perry’s role on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, creates a disqualifying conflict of interest. The Obama administration recently blocked construction of a section of the pipeline in North Dakota. That decision, made by the Army Corps of Engineers, jeopardized the entire project. 

Perry had been jockeying for the Energy post with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat who supports at least parts of Trump’s crusade to roll back environmental restrictions on coal production. Trump’s apparent passing over of Manchin probably means he would remain in the narrowly divided Senate, where he can work with fellow Democrats against much of the rest of the Trump agenda and possibly against some of Trump’s nominees. 

Perry is an unyielding backer of opening up more land for drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. He also supports doing away with subsidies for renewable energy.

Under the Obama administration, the Energy Department has been a hub of the president’s efforts to counter global warming. The department has distributed billions of dollars in loan guarantees to pioneering wind and solar projects, and its laboratories are incubators for clean-energy innovation.

Like Trump, Perry has consistently mocked the Obama climate change effort as driven by politics. He questions the overwhelming scientific view on global warming that Earth’s climate is warming at an alarming rate and that time is running out to make aggressive reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, which are the main driver of the change.

During his presidential 2012 run, Perry called climate change a “contrived, phony mess.” When he ran again in the 2016 GOP primary, he joined almost all the other candidates in refusing the embrace the scientific consensus on warming.

But under Perry’s administration, Texas firms leveraged federal subsidies to become a national leader in wind energy. Texas produces more energy from wind than any other state, and Perry boasted that emissions in the state have dropped substantially as a result. 

Even so, he continues to call for an end to such subsidies.

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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