Get Ready, America: Rick Perry’s Environmental and Energy Record is Awful

During his 14 years as governor, Perry attempted to fast-track permits for 11 coal plants and supported building a radioactive waste facility in West Texas.

Donald Trump and Rick Perry
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry visiting with Donald Trump in New York on June 20, 2013. Perry is Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Energy.

To say Rick Perry, Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, has a poor environmental record would be an understatement. During his time as Texas governor, Perry was an outspoken climate change denier and a fierce champion of the oil and gas industry, from whom he raised more than $11 million from 1998 to 2010.

Perry made fighting the EPA, an agency he’ll be expected to work with as energy secretary, a cornerstone of his governorship, once publicly announcing that he was praying for President Obama to “ask that his EPA back down.” When Texas was going through a historic drought in 2011, he declared three days in April “Days of Prayer for Rain.” It was in that same period of Perry’s most intense tea party fervor that he claimed the planet is “experiencing a cooling trend.” He once argued that “a substantial number of [climate] scientists” have “manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects” and called Al Gore a “false prophet of a secular carbon cult.

Now he’s poised to lead the agency that he famously couldn’t remember he wanted to abolish, an infamous “oops moment” that led Texas Monthly to name him “Bum Steer of the Year.

Americans most familiar with Rick Perry during his recent turn on “Dancing with the Stars” may want to get better acquainted. The overarching theme of Perry’s environmental and energy record is a laissez-faire approach to regulation punctuated by heavy lifting for campaign donors and special interests. There are few major policy initiatives that can be attributed to Perry; he mostly seemed content to let big business do its thing, while he pleased the GOP base with attacks on the EPA and Obama.

Here are Perry’s top four environmental lowlights during his tenure as governor of Texas.

Siding with Coal Interests

In 2006, Texas’ largest utility, TXU Energy (now Energy Future Holdings), was trying to build 11 new coal plants. The proposals were met with strong resistance from environmentalists, rural folks, big-city mayors, business interests and others, an unusual coalition that launched one of the most successful environmental campaigns in recent Texas history. Through an executive order, Perry directed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to fast-track the permitting process for the coal plants.

A state judge later deemed the order unconstitutional. Only three of the 11 proposed plants were eventually built, thanks to a deal the new owners of TXU cut with some environmentalists.

In classic Perry fashion, his keen interest in coal coincided with certain campaign contributions. He pocketed more than $630,000 from TXU from 2001 to 2011, the most the company gave to any politician during that period. Of coal opponents, he once wrote in an op-ed, “I would argue they want to return us to the era of horse and buggy except they would probably complain about the methane gas from horse manure, too.”

Cheerleader for a Nuclear Waste Company

Perhaps the most important role of the Energy Department is overseeing the nation’s nuclear power plants. As governor, Perry obviously didn’t have his hand in nuclear weapons, but he did play a significant role in bringing nuclear waste to Texas. In 2003, Perry signed the bill that privatized radioactive waste disposal in Texas. The legislation was crafted specifically for Waste Control Specialists, a company owned by the Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. Now deceased, Simmons is best-known for funding the Swift Boat ads attacking John Kerry’s military service. He was also one of Perry’s biggest financial supporters over the years.

After the privatization, Perry’s appointees at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality helped Waste Control secure all the necessary state permits, even though state geologists and engineers warned that the West Texas dump would leak into the groundwater.

Ever since, the state has allowed the dump to move closer to the company’s stated goal of becoming a national repository for nuclear waste. Recently, Waste Control has been leaning on state and federal authorities to allow it to become a storage site for high-level nuclear waste, taking spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors around the country.

In 2014, Perry wrote a letter to the Texas House urging lawmakers “to develop a Texas solution for the long-term resolution of [high-level waste] currently residing inside our borders.”

Perry didn’t pinpoint Waste Control Specialists in his letter as the preferred company to build such a facility, but he did tell a local TV station that there is “a legitimate site in West Texas.”

Perry also appointed many of the commissioners to the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, which has been approving shipments of waste from other states. At the TCEQ, his appointees permitted an expansion of the facility’s operations so it could receive more radioactive waste. Simmons was a major contributor to Perry’s campaigns, giving $250,000 to his 2008 campaign alone.

Waste Control currently has a proposal to store spent nuclear waste in West Texas before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that is expected to provide a review of the project in 2019. If the commission provides a positive review, the proposal will eventually land before Rick Perry’s Department of Energy.

Fighting the EPA

Perry has long had an anti-federal bent, but his late-career enthusiasm for the tea party only increased his stridency. During the Obama years, Perry took particular aim at the EPA.

In his 2010 book Fed Up!, Perry wrote that the “EPA in particular illustrates how Washington’s command-and-control environmental bureaucracy is destroying federalism and individuals’ ability to make their own economic decisions.”

Texas filed 19 suits against the EPA during Perry’s 14 years as governor, and he has been vocal about his dislike for the agency, calling it a “cemetery for jobs.”

During his governorship, the Texas Attorney General’s office has sued the EPA mainly over air pollution regulations that would affect the fossil fuel industry. The TCEQ, the state agency responsible for environmental oversight, has resisted the implementation of those rules.

In 2009, when the EPA announced its greenhouse gas emission rule, Texas was the only state not to comply. Instead, Texas sued the EPA, with Perry stating that the state was “defend[ing] Texas’s freedom to continue our successful environmental strategies free from federal overreach.”

Anti-Regulatory Picks for Regulatory Agencies

Perry made a whopping 8,000-plus appointments as governor. At least 90 were former employees, helping to make Perry the most powerful Texas governor in modern history. It’s not a stretch to say Rick Perry was state government.

Perry was skilled at picking loyalists, many of them former employees and lobbyists. For instance, he appointed his chief of staff Jeffrey Boyd to the Texas Supreme Court. Nearly a quarter of his appointees had given to his campaign at some point, totalling $20 million in donations.

That pattern was apparent in his appointment of former aides to high-level positions at agencies with oversight of the natural resources of the state — such as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Water Development Board, TCEQ and the Railroad Commission.

For the TCEQ, Perry picked former policy aides Toby Baker and Zak Covar as commissioners, and he put Bech Bruun, another former aide, on the Texas Water Development Board.

Almost across the board, Perry’s appointees have been hostile to climate science and mainstream positions on air and water pollution. Under Bryan Shaw, whom Perry appointed to the TCEQ in 2007, the agency scrubbed all mention of climate change from a report on sea-level rise. Shaw has also defied federal mandates to crack down on smog-causing pollutants, arguing instead that an increase in smog might lead to better health outcomes. Under Shaw’s leadership, the state is still fighting the EPA on restricting emissions of pollutants that cause smog.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 8:30 am CST
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