I’m always intrigued when someone says, ‘The science is settled.’ You know, whether they’re talking about the issue of global warming, or whether it’s the issue of our energy resources, maybe the science isn’t settled.
BRUCETON, Pa. — A day after Secretary of Energy Rick Perry toured a coal-fired power plant in northern West Virginia, the former Texas governor sat down with the Washington Examiner at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in suburban Pittsburgh.
The facility is one of 17 government-funded national labs within the Department of Energy and is also part of a fascinating chapter in American history, not just in the development of energy, but also of science. The complex, atop a rolling Appalachian ridge, once housed the head of the Ordnance Engineering Group for the Manhattan Project and the researchers and scientists who helped design the trigger for the first atomic bomb.
Perry visited for a tour of the lab that is working to expand the possibilities for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in shale. He praised work the lab is also doing to identify and extract rare-earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.
The former Republican presidential candidate was confirmed by the Senate in March fairly comfortably, especially considering the partisan pushback some of President Trump’s Cabinet picks received. The job requires Perry to oversee the nation’s nuclear weapons programs, 17 national laboratories, and energy research and development that includes more than 100,000 employees spread throughout the country.
Of the 17 labs, this one is the only one entirely run by the federal government.
Sitting in a conference room overlooking the lush 38-acre Energy Department facility, the secretary discussed the Trump administration’s ambitions for energy policy, his responsibilities and approach to the office, and what he hopes to accomplish by the time he leaves office.
Washington Examiner: What is the scope of your job as you see it?
Perry: Well, it’s an interesting agency in the sense of part of what they do, the general public only has a passing knowledge of. All the nuclear weapon arsenal is under the purview of the Department of Energy. So, making sure that it’s safe, secure. Making sure that it works. God forbid that we ever have to use it, but if we do, we want to know it’s going to work.
Washington Examiner: How do you ensure that it is functional?
Perry: With the prohibition against underground testing, that means that super-computing becomes very important in running the models with our computers. One of the things I will discuss today with the employees is our goals — modernizing the weapons arsenal and making sure that we modernize it appropriately.
Then the cleanup of the Cold War, the legacy of the Cold War. There are a lot of places around the country where we did work — Hanford, up in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, Oak Ridge, Rocky Flats in Colorado, Paducah in Kentucky. It’s going to be a long process in some of the places. That’s two-thirds of our budget there. The 17 national labs, one of which we are in now, the National Energy Technology Lab. It’s a unique one in the sense of it’s the only one that’s actually government-run and government-operated. The other ones are what we call MNO, where there’s a contractor that comes in and operates it. Those other 16 labs are run by private-sector organizations. And it is just mind-boggling work that they do. Everything from finding the next safe, thoughtful way to use a type of energy. For instance, right here in this one in Pittsburgh, how do you use coal in a way that will continue to support the coal industry, support the jobs and the livelihood and the way of life that coal has been involved with?
So, those are the types of things that this facility, and the one down in Morgantown, W.Va., that we are working together to come up with the new technologies to use coal, fossil fuels, in a thoughtful way.
Washington Examiner: And what about natural gas?
Perry: We’re sitting on one of the most prolific natural gas fields in the world, right under our feet. How to take that resource, add value to it. One of the conversations we had this morning at the West Virginia University, with the private sector, with DOE employees, with the governor’s office in West Virginia, was how to create an energy hub in this region…
Washington Examiner: Has coal really become cleaner?
Perry: It’s interesting you would say that. Walking through the plant in Longview — it’s a highly efficient, low-emission plant — and I’m in the middle of a plant that is using tons of coal to create electrical power. It’s pulverizing that coal into like talcum powder. I literally wiped my hand across the first floor of this plant, and it looks like my hand looks right now wiping it across this tabletop. Totally clean. That is the innovation that we’ve come to expect in America. Sometimes, you know, we let political interest drive us more than we do innovation, technology, skepticism, which is at the core of what science is all about. I’m really proud to be a part of an administration that’s not afraid to be skeptical, not afraid to ask questions, not afraid to challenge our national labs to come up with a solution that vex us, and we got a pretty good record of finding solutions to challenges that face the world.
Washington Examiner: Where has your job taken you so far in the past four months?
Perry: There’s a substantial amount of required travel internationally. G7 was in Rome. There was a trip to Japan. There was a clean energy ministerial in China that we actually hosted, or one of the hosts, I should say. We’ll be going to some of the eastern European countries later. There is an IEA, the International Energy Agency, that has a meeting that we’re hosting. I want to visit as many of the labs that I can, Idaho National Lab, Los Alamos, Oakridge, now, obviously the National Energy Technology Lab, Morgantown, and Pittsburgh. Four down and what is that, 13?, 13 to go. It’ll take a while to see all the labs, but our intention is to try to visit all of them. It’s important to see the work they’re doing.
I also visited the waste isolation pilot project outside of Carlsbad, N.M., and then a trip to Yucca Mountain. That was the first trip that we took. DOE is a pretty broad, long agency, if you will, in a lot of different places. There’s going to be a lot of travel involved, but that’s OK. It’s part of the process.
Washington Examiner: Did you get any pushback on the climate accord and the U.S. backing out of it?
Perry: Well, the pushing back side of it always comes … when somebody doesn’t agree with your political position. My interest has always been to find as close to the truth as we can come. I’m not sure this is ever going to be an absolute black and/or white issue. It’s science and there’s going to be people on both sides of this because I’m not sure that there is definitive, absolute proof, that the climate is changing and man is 100 percent the cause of it, and here’s how much it’s going to cost to correct it or alleviate it or stop it. With all that said, I hope we can have an open, thoughtful conversation with people on both sides of this as we go forward and agree that we’re making great progress. America has reduced its emissions more than any country out there from the standpoint of a percentage.
Why is it? We’re continuing to put good innovative ideas to work, just like yesterday in West Virginia at the high efficiency, low-emission coal plant. That’s the type of technology I’d like to see deployed into China and India and other areas of the U.S. and around the world to help use the natural resources that we abundantly have in a clean and thoughtful way and produce jobs and power. I think — I don’t think, I know — you can have both economic growth and address your environment in a positive way, because we saw that happen in Texas while I was governor.
I remind people of that record while we were there — record job growth, record wealth creation, and we saw seven million people added to the population rolls while I was governor. That’s a lot of non-point source pollution because a lot of those people bought pickup trucks and cars. That was a huge increase in manufacturing. We have the largest petrochemical manufacturing area in the U.S. there. All of that conventional wisdom would say you affected your environment in a negative way, but we didn’t. We saw nitrogen oxide levels down by 65-plus percent. We saw [sulfur dioxide] levels down by 55-plus percent. We saw carbon dioxide levels down by almost 20 percent, so you can have economic growth and affect your environment in a positive way. It’s done with incentives. It’s done with technology.
We are doing it in America, so I hope those that were ‘Paris Accord or bust’ recognize that America doesn’t have to have some accord that it’s signed onto, quite frankly, one that costs our country a lot of money and I, along with the president, didn’t see the real return on the investment [on those] billions. That’s not to say that the president doesn’t sit down and renegotiate a position with the countries that were in the Paris Accord. He may do that. I’m more interested in the results of having lower emissions and creating jobs.