There is not a lot to like in the Trump administration’s cabinet picks. But there is one who, jokes aside, might be a reasonably decent pick: Rick Perry.
I know, he wanted to abolish the agency he will run. And most of what Energy does involves nuclear weapons. But hear me out. Short version: Rick Perry has a surprisingly good energy record in Texas, and I speak as a deep green. If he embraces it and pushes it inside the Trump administration, then he will leave a great legacy. Sadly, that is not how I would bet, since the Governor has shied away from his biggest accomplishment.
Long version: Governor Perry has a surprisingly good record in Texas. The centerpiece of his accomplishments is a massive infrastructure plan called CREZ: the “Competitive Renewable Energy Zone.” In 2005, the legislature empowered the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) to create zones prioritzing the construction of long-distance power lines. The resulting infrastructure allowed the state to blow through all its targets for green energy. It hit its 2025 target in 2009. As of October 2016, wind had generated a bit over 12% of all utility-scale electric power in the state: not too far behind Germany at 17%. In fact, on November 27, windpower supplied 45% of total electricity demand.
A Texan energy guy I speak to (wind or oil? You guess!) said that Perry was instrumental in finishing CREZ. Perry wasn’t the mastermind of the legislative push — with unanimity in the Senate and 91-14 in the House, and Troy Fraser pushing it in the Senate, that wasn’t the hard part. Rather, the SB 20 was a short act. (The link goes to the text; the legislative analysis is here and the whole legislative history is here.) It instructed PUCT to approve applications for CREZ power lines within 180 days, but that left a host of political and legal obstacles that would have killed the project in many other states. (I’m looking at you, Golden State.)
What Perry did was, in the words of my acquaintance, “pull together folks from the various agencies, along with members of the House and Senate, and said, ‘All right, here’s a series of challenges that need to be addressed.’” In 2008, for example, it looked like the project was going to stall out, but Perry kept pushing. It got done, one of the most impressive infrastructure projects of the (pathetic) 21st-century United States.
Could Secretary Perry take this national?
Yes! One of the great unheralded accomplishments of the second Bush administration (along with Medicare Part D) was the Energy Policy Act of 2005. First, it had a decent name rather than one of these stupid cutesy acronyms or idiot propaganda titles. Second, Section 216 empowered the Department of Energy (DOE) to “designate any geographic area experiencing electric energy transmission capacity constraints or congestion that adversely affects consumers as a national interest electric transmission corridor.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) could then authorize power lines, which would grant the operating utilities the right to exercise eminent domain.
Now, none of this would be easy.
First, Perry would need to coordinate with Agriculture, Commerce and Interior.
Second, the courts have hamstrung the Act, holding that FERC cannot overturn a state refusal to permit a transmission line. (There is some pin-dancing, of course: that interpretation hinges on what Congress meant by the phrase “withheld approval.” See page 96.) So Perry would need to get Justice on his side and make some persuasive legal arguments. Or he would need to get the President back a new Energy Policy Act clarifying federal authority. That would not be unprecedented: the Natural Gas Act of 1938 gives FERC the power to use eminent domain to build interstate pipelines. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 did the same for LNG terminals.
Now, one might imagine that the current President-elect would be open to this sort of thing. Call them the Trumplines, hand out tax credits, use eminent domain with abandon, limit court appeals. Back to the 1930s! Green energy but with cronyism! What is not to like?
... third, Governor Perry hasn’t exactly owned his accomplishments. In the words of Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, speaking in 2014: “Perry is bipolar on wind. He plugged into when he saw he could get a political benefit. And now that the winds have changed in the Republican Party, he’s unplugged himself from one of his greatest environmental victories.” In fact, there are now serious moves in Texas to end the CREZ: Troy Fraser himself pushed to repeal the legislation, just as a new expansion of power lines is needed. (Luckily, it failed.)
To conclude: Governor Perry has a great energy infrastructure record in Texas. He could take that national, get a lot of power lines built and greatly expand wind and solar without ever uttering a word about global warming or carbon emissions or whatever. And it would be an approach that his chief executive should like. Moreover, there is not a whole lot that Perry could or would do at DOE to hurt renewables. So consider it an upside bet.
A far-fetched one, considering that taking his legacy national would require political courage that Perry has never (AFAIK) demonstrated. But who knows? Hope springs eternal. And unlike some of the other cabinet picks, this one at least will probably do no harm.