When news emerged that Donald Trump had chosen former Texas governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy, journalists everywhere were blessed with the opportunity to remind readers of his “oops” moment, when during a GOP primary debate Perry violated one of the basic rules of public speaking: Never list how many points you’re going to make unless you have them written in front of you. The moment, which deserves a close watch, is a study in Twain’s maxim that “against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Not even Rick Perry’s practiced Texan machismo. It begins with Perry turning his substantial torso towards the candidate adjacent to him onstage, by chance the comparatively diminutive (and for some reason smirking) Ron Paul. Gesturing theatrically and summoning up all his authority, Perry declares in uncertain terms: “I will tell you, it is three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone.” Extending a finger for each of the cabinet departments on the chopping block, he continues: “Commerce, Education, and the, um…What’s the third one there?” The next minute or so, as Perry smiles sheepishly while the moderators alternate between helping him and asking if he really can’t remember the third one, is a scene of cringe-inducing (almost Office-esque) comedy; it is also a gratifying sight of unearned authority laid low. In this moment, the video is good for a grim laugh, since the agency Perry couldn’t remember is the one he’s now been chosen to head.
As a deadpan report in The New York Times strongly suggests, it is entirely possible that neither Trump nor Perry has any idea what the Energy Department does. “Texas is rich in energy resources, and Mr. Perry is an enthusiastic supporter of extracting them. But it is not clear how that experience would translate into leading the Energy Department,” the Times notes, pointing out that “[d]espite its name,” much of the department’s business has less to do with drill-baby-drill and more to do with nuclear weapons. (To drive home the point, the report quotes a former senator who calls the selection of Perry “perplexing” and who also notes, surely with no particular individual in mind, that “very few people understand” the nature of the position.)
However, that doesn’t mean Perry is without experience for the job. Anybody seeking to understand his record on nuclear issues should revisit Charles Homans’s masterful 2012 profile of Harold Simmons, a Texas billionaire who, around February 2012, was, according to FEC filings, the largest single donor in American politics. That level of spending was made possible in part by Simmons’s fabulously successful effort, over nearly a decade, to rewrite Texas law and secure permission for a private company he had taken over to store nuclear waste in the state.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Simmons began to acquire shares in a company called Waste Control Specialists, which was seeking to build a nuclear waste depository outside the tiny town of Andrews. At the time, as Homans explains, Texas law did not allow private companies to operate nuclear waste dumps—but after a massive lobbying and donation push spearheaded by Simmons, and made possible by his political connections (he evidently assured associates of ties to Perry and other leading politicians), the legislature changed the law. “Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license,” Simmons explained to a reporter in 2006. “Of course, we were the only ones that applied.”
As Homans shows, after the initial fight to change the law, the regulatory hurdles proved mild in comparison. This, even after an analysis found that the site in Andrews “came worryingly close to several groundwater deposits, including the Ogallala Aquifer—the largest underground water system in North America and, possibly, the world.” One source of groundwater might be as close as 14 feet from the radioactive waste site. After state experts recommended rejecting the license, Glenn Shankle, the head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) approved it anyway.
Texas-based reporters, who have been sounding the alarm about these practices to little national notice, might find that their valuable work is about to become newly prominent. As one 2009 report put it: “In Gov. Perry’s almost nine years in office, he has achieved close to a 100% success rate in appointing TCEQ commissioners who go out of their way to side with ‘customers’ – as TCEQ refers to the polluting industries they regulate – over citizens and the environment.” Shankle, the report noted, frequently overruled recommendations from his technical staff even though he “had no formal training in environmental policy or science-based regulation” himself. That conspicuous lack of qualification, fortunately, would matter less in his new job. As you probably could have guessed, shortly after approving the license for the nuclear site, “Shankle left the agency and went to work as a lobbyist for that company, Waste Control Specialists, which is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and major donor to Rick Perry’s campaign and other Republicans.” The ground by the aquifer may be filled with radioactive waste, but hey, at least the swamp is drained.