WASHINGTON — Rick Perry twice ran for president and appeared as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”
But since becoming President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, Perry has kept a low profile and rarely has been seen publicly around Washington. Comedian Hasan Minhaj joked at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that Perry must be “sitting in a room full of plutonium waiting to become Spider-Man. That’s just my hunch.”
In truth, Perry has been busy — but far away from the capital.
He has toured Energy Department sites around the country, represented the Trump administration at a meeting in Italy and pledged to investigate a tunnel collapse at a radioactive waste storage site in Washington state.
Perry has visited a shuttered nuclear waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain and cautiously began a yearslong process to revive it.
On Thursday, Perry embarked on a nine-day trip to Asia, where he planned to check on the progress made since a 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to help decontaminate and decommission damaged nuclear reactors. Perry also was to represent the United States at a clean energy meeting in Beijing.
The former Texas governor says he’s having the time of his life running an agency he once pledged to eliminate. Perry has emerged as a strong defender of the department’s work, especially the 17 national labs that conduct cutting-edge research on everything from national security to renewable energy.
“I’m telling you officially the coolest job I’ve ever had is being secretary of energy … and it’s because of these labs,” the 67-year-old Perry told an audience last month at Idaho National Laboratory, one of several he has visited since taking office in March.
“If you work at a national lab … you are making a difference,” Perry said.
The energy chief soon will have a chance to back up those words when he and other officials head to Capitol Hill to defend a budget proposal that slashes funding for science, renewables and energy efficiency.
Perry probably will be asked to defend Trump’s decision to withdraw from the landmark Paris climate accord. Perry said Thursday that the U.S. remains committed to clean energy and is confident officials can “drive economic growth and protect the environment at the same time.”
The administration has called for cutting the Office of Science, which includes 10 national labs, by 17 percent. The proposed budget would reduce spending for renewable and nuclear energy, eliminate the popular Energy Star program to enhance efficiency and gut an agency that promotes research and development of advanced energy technologies.
Perry, who served 14 years as Texas governor, likened the spending plan to an opening offer that he expects to see significantly changed in Congress.
“I will remind you this is not my first rodeo when it comes to budgeting,” he said during a recent tour of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
“Hopefully we will be able to make that argument to our friends in Congress that what DOE is involved with plays a vital role, not only in the security of America but the economic well-being of the country as we go forward,” he said.
Energy lobbyist Frank Maisano said Perry’s actions show instincts honed in his tenure as Texas’s longest-serving governor.
“He’s trying to find out what he needs to find out — hearing about these issues from the front lines,” Maisano said.
While Perry will never match the scientific expertise of his most recent predecessors at the Energy Department, nuclear physicists Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, his political skills may offset that knowledge gap, Maisano said.
During his Oak Ridge visit, Perry pledged to be “a strong advocate” for Oak Ridge and other labs. He has spoken out in favor of renewable energy such as wind and solar power, noting that while he was governor, Texas maintained its traditional role as a top driller for oil and natural gas, and emerged as the leading producer of wind power in the United States and a top 10 provider of solar power.
Abigail Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said she had “a very positive conversation” with Perry at a meeting in April.
“He was very interested in our technology and how it can be utilized,” she said in an interview.
Perry also “knew exactly where Texas was in solar installation,” Hopper said — No. 9 in the nation, compared with its top ranking among wind-producing states.
Hopper, a former Interior Department official under President Barack Obama, said she and Perry did not discuss her federal service — but did talk about how national labs can boost the solar industry.
“It was good to make that connection between the research and how it translates into the marketplace,” she said. “He gets it.”