WASHINGTON – Energy Secretary Rick Perry defended his costly travel on private and government planes to Congress, saying Thursday that such flights are sometimes needed for him to do his job.
Perry said his department has energy labs and other facilities in remote places and he receives frequent invitations from lawmakers to visit their states.
“I suppose you could even hitchhike” to some places, Perry jokingly told a House energy subcommittee. He said that while he tries to travel in a “thoughtful and most reasonable way,” he sometimes “may have to do it in a way that does expend some taxpayers’ dollars.”
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he is asking the Energy Department’s inspector general to investigate Perry’s travel. He said the flights are “of particular concern given the extreme budget cuts the Trump Administration proposed for ‘successful programs that help every day Americans.’”
The Energy Department has said Perry has taken at least six trips on government or private planes costing an estimated $56,000. The trips have included visits to facilities in Washington, Idaho and New Mexico.
Several Trump administration officials’ travel expenses have recently attracted public attention.
Perry also defended his agency’s plan to reward nuclear and coal-fired power plants for adding reliability to the nation’s power grid.
He said the plan is needed to help prevent widespread outages such as those caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and an extreme cold snap in 2014 called the “polar vortex” in the Eastern and Central U.S.
The plan aims to reverse a steady tide of retirements of coal and nuclear plants, which have lost market share as natural gas and renewable energy flourish.
The proposal would compensate power plant owners that maintain a 90-day fuel supply protected against the elements. It is expected to cost billions of dollars.
Perry’s plan coincides with President Donald Trump’s vow to achieve U.S. “energy dominance” while ending what he and other Republicans call a “war on coal” waged by the Obama administration. Perry has said he wants to “make nuclear energy cool again.”
Critics say the payments are nothing but costly, unwise and unfair subsidies.
Environmental groups say the plan would boost dirty fuels and harm consumers, while the energy industry warns about interference in the free market and manufacturers complain about higher energy prices that could be passed on to consumers.
Dow Chemical, Koch Industries and U.S. Steel Corp. are standing with environmentalists in opposing Perry’s plan.
The Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a trade group that represents Dow, Koch Industries and other manufacturing giants, said in a letter to Congress that the proposal is “anti-competitive” and could distort or “destroy competitive wholesale electricity markets, increase the price of electricity to all consumers” and harm U.S. manufacturing.
A coalition of industry groups, ranging from the American Council on Renewable Energy to the American Petroleum Institute and the Natural Gas Supply Association, also blasted the plan, saying it could harm “entire industries and their tens of thousands workers.”
Manufacturers and other critics say there is no evidence of a threat to the grid’s day-to-day reliability that would justify the emergency action Perry is seeking.
Indeed, in a report commissioned by Perry and delivered in August, the Energy Department said “reliability is adequate today despite the retirement of 11 percent of the generating capacity available in 2002, as significant additions from natural gas, wind, and solar have come online since then.”
Gerry Cauley, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., an international regulatory authority, said at a conference in June that “the state of reliability in North America remains strong, and the trend line shows continuing improvement year over year.”
Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the petroleum institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said officials “need to be careful that government doesn’t put its thumb on the scale” in energy markets.
Amy Farrell, senior vice president of the American Wind Energy Association, said the proposal could “upend competitive markets that save consumers billions of dollars a year.”
Coal and nuclear groups praised the plan.
National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn called Perry’s action “a long-overdue and necessary step to address the vulnerability of America’s energy grid.”
Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said disruptions caused by hurricanes and other extreme weather events show that “the urgency to act in support of the resiliency of the electric grid has never been clearer.”
The Energy Department seeks final action by mid-December, although industry groups and some members of Congress have pushed for a delay.