In 2011, former Texas governor Rick Perry counted the Department of Energy among the government agencies he would eliminate as president—until he famously couldn’t remember the department’s name during a Republican debate.
Naturally, the very same Rick Perry was tapped by the Trump administration to run the Energy Department. And according to the New York Times, Perry accepted the job thinking that it had quite a bit to do with oil and gas drilling. While that would have been especially convenient to his corporate backers, Perry has by now discovered that most of the Department of Energy’s work concerns nuclear weapons and government scientific research facilities.
But the department does oversee one component of the energy business: The overseas shipping of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Energy Department’s Fossil Energy office facilitates LNG export deals, and it has in-house research departments that work on making recommendations about oil and gas exports.
And it just so happens that exporting gas is pretty important to corporations that, until a few weeks ago, were very important to Rick Perry. At the end of 2016, Perry stepped down from the boards of Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics.
Thanks to mobilization at Standing Rock, many people are aware of Energy Transfer Partners because of its link to the Dakota Access pipeline. One of Sunoco’s most controversial projects is the Mariner East 1 pipeline, which runs across Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio and West Virginia carrying natural gas liquids to the Marcus Hook facility in southeastern Pennsylvania. The company is in the process of adding a second line, Mariner East 2, which would substantially increase the capacity to ship fracked gas liquids like propane and ethane. Ethane is eventually used in the manufacture of plastics, which is linked to air pollution.
And where does all this gas go? Europe. In March of last year, a massive “dragon ship” left Marcus Hook loaded with ethane derived from shale gas drilling, headed to facilities in Scotland and Norway. The project is the brainchild of a company called INEOS, which has made a substantial investment in what industry observers call a ‘virtual pipeline’ across the Atlantic Ocean. According to INEOS founder Jim Ratcliffe, “Shale gas economics has revitalized US manufacturing” and “it has the potential to do the same for European manufacturing.”
In reality, fracking’s legacy has nothing to do with revitalization. It has devastated local communities, polluted air and water, and has deepened our dependence on fossil fuels—and thus adding more fuel to the planet’s climate crisis. There is an activist movement against fracking building in European countries.
Rick Perry has a new appreciation for the Department of Energy. As he said at his January 19 confirmation hearing, “After being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination."
The real danger might not be that Rick Perry doesn’t know what to do at the Department of Energy. He may, in fact, have a very clear agenda—one that enriches his friends in the oil and gas business and imperils the rest of us.