WASHINGTON — Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to head the Energy Department, vowed to be an advocate for an agency he once pledged to eliminate and promised to rely on federal scientists, including those who work on climate change.
Perry told a Senate committee on Thursday that he regrets his infamous statement about abolishing the department and insisted it performs critical functions, particularly in protecting and modernizing the nation's nuclear stockpile.
"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," Perry said. "In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination."
In 2011, at a Republican presidential primary debate, Perry became a punchline who famously forgot the department was one of the agencies he wanted to eliminate.
At his confirmation hearing, Perry also pledged to promote and develop American energy in all forms, advance the department's science and technology mission and carefully dispose of nuclear waste. And he acknowledged that climate change is real.
"I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity," Perry told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs."
Perry, who served 14 years at Texas governor, said he was for "all of the above" on energy production — oil and gas to renewable sources like wind and solar power — before President Barack Obama embraced the strategy.
"We truly advocated an all-of-the-above strategy, reducing carbon emissions not just through development of cleaner fossil fuels, but through the development of renewable sources too," Perry said.
During Perry's tenure as governor, Texas maintained its traditional role as a top driller for oil and natural gas, while also emerging as the leading producer of wind power in the United States and a top 10 provider of solar power.
Democrats repeatedly reminded Perry of his pledge to abolish the department. Several expressed concern about news reports indicating that the Trump administration plans major cuts to the department's budget, including eliminating the offices of electricity, energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Perry if he agreed with those advocating such cuts.
"Maybe they'll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that," Perry said, drawing knowing laughter from the committee.
Perry also elicited laughs when he told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that he enjoyed meeting him at Franken's Senate office, adding, "I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch."
Franken, a former comedian, paused for effect as Perry asked to rephrase. "Please," Franken said, "Please, oh my lord."
"I think we found our 'Saturday Night Live' soundbite," Perry joked. Franken was a writer and actor on the show in the 1970s and 1980s.
Under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Perry vowed to protect Energy Department scientists from political or budgetary attacks.
"I'm going to protect all of the science, whether it's related to the climate or to the other aspects of what we're going to be doing," Perry said.
Perry criticized a Trump transition team questionnaire that sought names of those who worked on Obama administration climate policy efforts, saying it went out before Trump picked him to oversee the department.
"I didn't approve it. I don't approve of it. I don't need that information. I don't want that information," Perry said.
Some Energy Department officials viewed the questionnaire as a bid to intimidate top scientists. Democrats called it a political witch hunt that could have a chilling effect on federal workers.
Democrats and environmental groups have derided Perry's nomination, calling him a steep drop-off from the two renowned physicists who preceded him as energy chief, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz. Perry earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from Texas A&M University, where he was also a member of the Corps of Cadets and a Yell Leader.
Moniz said last week that he and Perry had discussed the "special role" of the Energy Department's 17 national laboratories and said he trusts that the labs — and scientists generally — will have Perry's "strong support."