Lawmakers grill Perry on travel, grid proposal

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, October 13, 2017

Energy Secretary Rick Perry defended his private airplane travel and his plan to alter electricity markets this morning in the face of strong questioning from House lawmakers.

In Perry’s first visit to the House Energy and Commerce Committee as head of the Department of Energy, members pressed him about taking at least four noncommercial flights since taking office at a cost of roughly $56,000, including one $11,000 chartered flight between Pennsylvania and Ohio last month.

Perry said his job requires significant travel to visit DOE sites around the country, citing the distance of national labs and invitations from lawmakers to visit their districts.

Perry didn’t mention that at least one of the stops on his trip to the Jeddo Coal plant in Pennsylvania occurred at the “request of the White House,” according to DOE (Greenwire, Oct. 6).

“I think we looked at this closely, we’ve been thoughtful about how we did it,” the secretary said about the issue of air travel.

“I’m going to continue to do my job. I’m going to make my commitment to you that I’m going to try to do it in the most thoughtful and reasonable way possible,” said Perry. “But realizing from time to time … we may have to do it in a way that does expend some taxpayer dollars.”

While the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, called for an investigation of Perry’s travel, Republicans like Rep. Joe Barton of Texas downplayed the issue.

Barton, the E&C vice chairman, said Perry travels back to Texas regularly with his wife on Southwest Airlines. Barton also recalled past secretaries like Hazel O’Leary faced backlash in the 1990s for using a charter jet on foreign trips.

“Party jets, internationally. Do not do what she did,” Barton said, referring to O’Leary.

Grid proposal

Lawmakers were keen on getting more information from Perry on his proposal to boost coal and nuclear by directing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to change rules in the markets it oversees.

“I asked FERC to change the market rules to make sure that fuel-secure generation is valued for what it is worth to our nation — not forced into early retirement leaving the grid at risk during the next disaster,” Perry said in written testimony.

Perry’s proposal has found opposition in virtually every corner of the energy world, other than backers of coal and nuclear (E&E Daily, Oct. 12).

Democrats and Republicans alike have accused him of picking winners and losers, and advocates for oil and gas and renewables have said the plan unfairly tips the scales toward uneconomical plants.

Perry has several times referred to the proposal as the start of a conversation, rather than a directive — even though it specifically directs FERC to take certain actions — and he repeated that claim this morning.

“One of the ways we could have this national discussion was to send this forward for FERC to consider,” Perry said at the hearing.

But Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.) pushed him on that distinction. “Is this a directive or a conversation? What your words said in the [proposed rule] and what your words say here today seem to be at odds with each other,” he said.

Perry answered that it actually falls into both categories. “It is both. We can have a conversation, and I think [FERC] must act,” said Perry.

‘First step’

Members of the Energy and Commerce panel responded to the proposal with reactions ranging from angry to supportive to neutral.

“You say you wanted to start debate — well, my friend, mission accomplished,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas).

Notably, several key Republicans on the committee’s leadership declined to endorse the administration’s initiative.

“While I reserve judgment on the policy solutions, the fact that the secretary stepped in to this complicated debate reflects the current need to have a broader conversation about the functioning of the nation’s electricity markets,” said Subcommittee on Energy Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

Full committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) didn’t mention the FERC rulemaking in his opening statement.

Pallone said the “substance of the proposal has serious flaws.” The Democrat said he wrote DOE today requesting a “detailed accounting” of the process the agency used to develop the plan.

The Energy secretary also suggested this morning that further moves could be on the way. “This proposal is just a first step in seeking to ensure that we truly have an energy policy that first and foremost protects the interests and needs of the American people,” said Perry’s written testimony.

“The Department is continuing to study these issues and, if necessary, will be prepared to make a series of additional recommendations to improve the reliability and resiliency of the electric grid.”

Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.