A day after Secretary of Energy Rick Perry toured a coal-fired power plant in northern West Virginia, the former Texas governor sat down with the Washington Examiner at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in suburban Pittsburgh.
The facility is one of 17 government-funded national labs within the Department of Energy and is also part of a fascinating chapter in American history, not just in the development of energy, but also of science.
The complex, atop a rolling Appalachian ridge, once housed the head of the Ordnance Engineering Group for the Manhattan Project and the researchers and scientists who helped design the trigger for the first atomic bomb.
Perry visited for a tour of the lab that is working to expand the possibilities for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in shale. He praised work the lab is also doing to identify and extract rare-earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.
The former Republican presidential candidate was confirmed by the Senate in March fairly comfortably, especially considering the partisan pushback some of President Trump’s Cabinet picks received. The job requires Perry to oversee the nation’s nuclear weapons programs, 17 national laboratories, and energy research and development that includes more than 100,000 employees spread throughout the country.
Of the 17 labs, this one is the only one entirely run by the federal government.
Sitting in a conference room overlooking the lush 38-acre Energy Department facility, the secretary discussed the Trump administration’s ambitions for energy policy, his responsibilities and approach to the office, and what he hopes to accomplish by the time he leaves office.
Washington Examiner: What is the scope of your job as you see it?
Perry: Well, it’s an interesting agency in the sense of part of what they do, the general public only has a passing knowledge of. All the nuclear weapon arsenal is under the purview of the Department of Energy. So, making sure that it’s safe, secure. Making sure that it works. God forbid that we ever have to use it, but if we do, we want to know it’s going to work.
Washington Examiner: How do you ensure that it is functional?
Perry: With the prohibition against underground testing, that means that super-computing becomes very important in running the models with our computers. One of the things I will discuss today with the employees is our goals — modernizing the weapons arsenal and making sure that we modernize it appropriately.
Then the cleanup of the Cold War, the legacy of the Cold War. There are a lot of places around the country where we did work — Hanford, up in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, Oak Ridge, Rocky Flats in Colorado, Paducah in Kentucky. It’s going to be a long process in some of the places. That’s two-thirds of our budget there. The 17 national labs, one of which we are in now, the National Energy Technology Lab. It’s a unique one in the sense of it’s the only one that’s actually government-run and government-operated. The other ones are what we call MNO, where there’s a contractor that comes in and operates it. Those other 16 labs are run by private-sector organizations. And it is just mind-boggling work that they do. Everything from finding the next safe, thoughtful way to use a type of energy. For instance, right here in this one in Pittsburgh, how do you use coal in a way that will continue to support the coal industry, support the jobs and the livelihood and the way of life that coal has been involved with?
So, those are the types of things that this facility, and the one down in Morgantown, W.Va., that we are working together to come up with the new technologies to use coal, fossil fuels, in a thoughtful way.
Washington Examiner: And what about natural gas?
Perry: We’re sitting on one of the most prolific natural gas fields in the world, right under our feet. How to take that resource, add value to it. One of the conversations we had this morning at the West Virginia University, with the private sector, with DOE employees, with the governor’s office in West Virginia, was how to create an energy hub in this region.
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