Rick Perry hearing: Former Texas governor says he regrets call to eliminate Energy Department

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry  faced tough questioning from  Senate Democrats on his views on climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and energy policy at a hearing on his nomination as energy secretary, but also charmed them with the sense of humor that helped make him one of the state’s most successful politicians.

Perry, nominated last month by President-elect Donald Trump, did penance for his proposal during his failed presidential bid in 2011  to eliminate the agency he would lead , telling the Senate and Energy Natural Resources Committee that he  regretted it “after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy.”

That proposal also set the stage for Perry to get some big laughs from the senators grilling him. With reports that Trump plans to slash government spending, including the Energy Department, Perry didn’t miss a beat when asked his opinion of the potential cuts.

“Maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that” – a reference to his famous “oops” moment when he could not remember the Energy Department as third of three federal agencies he proposed abolishing during a debate for presidential candidates.

The hearing room erupted in laughter, even drawing a knowing nod from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a member of the party’s environmental wing. A later exchange with Franken, a former Saturday Night Live comedian, also provided a lighter moment, adding to Perry’s reputation as a politician with a sense of humor, occasionally prone to “What did he just say”  moments.

Asked by Franken,  if he enjoyed their private meeting in his office, Perry said, “I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on that couch.” A collective howl of laughter ran through the hearing room.

Perry, realizing the potential implication of what he said, quickly interjected, “may I rephrase that, sir?,” before commenting that SNL’s producers had found their skit for this weekend. Not one to let a good laugh die, Franken replied, “One of the fun things on the couch you said,” before moving on to the more serious topic of the government’s role in developing hydraulic fracturing technology.

The hearings are the latest and most consequential step in  Perry’s transition form smooth-talking politician-in-chief to studied presidential deputy, up to the task of managing billions of dollars in federal research dollars and the nation’s nuclear missile arsenal. A former Air Force pilot and cotton farmer who admits his college career at Texas A&M was sidetracked by fraternity life, Perry would be the first energy secretary in more than a decade without a PhD. President Obama’s first energy secretary, Steven Chu was a Nobel laureate.

READ: Perry polishes image for new role as Energy Secretary

Perry is a climate change skeptic who has questioned the science that concludes  that human activity — the burning of fossil fuels — is accelerating global warming. And what was a fairly friendly hearing,  took a tense turn when Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on  him on his past statements in which he questioned the science that has shown that human activity — burning fossil fuels — is accelerating global warming.

Perry acknowledged that climate change is real, but when Sanders asked if he believed it to be a global crisis, Perry dodged. “I think that having an academic discussion with scientists or with you, it is an interesting exercise,” he said.

He pointed to his record on developing and expanding wind power in Texas, asking Sanders, “Don’t you think that is a good thing?”

“I think what would be a better thing is for you to say we have a global crisis” Sanders responded.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also expressed concerns about Perry’s views on climate change.  “The melting of sea ice is at an all-time high,,” she said in her opening statement. “How do we know this? Because the Department of Energy does the research.”

As governor, Perry’s energy record was difficult to pigeonhole. With a long lost of donors from the fossil fuel industry, he supported the expansion of oil and gas drilling along with coal-fired power plants, describing climate change research as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart of its own weight. But he also championed a $7 billion power line to bring wind power from West Texas to population centers around Dallas and Houston. Texas now produces more wind power than all but a handful of countries in the world.

READ: Sell your carbon dioxide? For now, market remains slim, but energy, industrial sectors looks to future

In his prepared testimony, Perry 66, said he will advocate and promote American energy in all forms, including renewable energy. Perry also vowed to support sound science, and long-term scientific research. That includes into climate change.

“I believe the climate is changing,” he will say. “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity. 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 offered no justification for the Trump transition team’s questionnaire to the Department of Energy asking for the names of scientists who worked on climate change – something Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz refused to comply with.

“That questionnaire you reference went out before I was even selected to be nominee,” he said. “I didn’t approve it. I don’t need that information.  I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone who would attack them.”

What do with the country’s growing stockpile of waste from nuclear power plants has plagued energy secretaries for decades. In the past, Perry has criticized efforts to force states to take the waste and under questioning by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., about the government’s push to establish the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in her state he didn’t shift.

Asked about legislation that would require the federal government to get a state’s consent to store nuclear waste there, Perry said, “If you pass such, not only will I salute it, I will happily salute it.”

Bloomberg News contributed.