WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump plans to name Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, to lead the Energy Department, an agency far more devoted to national security and basic science than to the extraction of fossil fuels that is Mr. Perry’s expertise.
In choosing him to be secretary of energy, the president-elect is elevating him to a cabinet post that Mr. Perry once said he wanted to eliminate, a proposal that led to one of the most famous gaffes in recent presidential politics.
“Oops,” Mr. Perry said in 2011 as he racked his brain during a nationally televised Republican primary debate, trying to remember the three departments he wanted to dismantle. He mentioned the Commerce and Education Departments but could not recall the third: the Energy Department.
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.
Despite its name, the department plays the leading role in designing nuclear weapons, thwarting their proliferation, and ensuring the safety and reliability of the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal through a constellation of laboratories considered the crown jewels of government science.
“The Rick Perry choice is so perplexing,” said former Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, who for years led the committee that oversees the Energy Department’s budget.
How Trump Can Influence Climate Change
A Trump administration could weaken or do away with many of the Obama-era policies focused on greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think very few people understand that the Energy Department, to a very substantial degree, is dealing with nuclear weapons,” he said. “And Rick Perry suggested the agency should be abolished. That suggests he thinks it doesn’t have value.”
Still, the former energy secretaries Spencer Abraham, a Republican, and Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said they could envision Mr. Perry adapting.
“There’s a lot of elements to the department that people don’t necessarily know about until you get there,” said Mr. Abraham, who, as a senator from Michigan, also frequently called for the abolition of the Energy Department. He said his views evolved after he was named its leader in President George W. Bush’s first term. “You find yourself surprised by what it really entails,” he said.
About 60 percent of the Energy Department’s budget is devoted to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which defines its mission as enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. Under President Obama, the Energy Department helped secure an agreement with Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and took on a larger role in efforts to combat global warming, particularly through scientific research. It also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to support breakthrough research on clean energy technology.
The last two energy secretaries, Ernest J. Moniz of M.I.T. and Steven Chu of Stanford, brought to the office their doctorates in physics, academic credentials and, in Dr. Chu’s case, a Nobel Prize.
Mr. Perry, 66, would bring a different set of credentials. He is the longest-serving governor of Texas — in office from 2000 to 2015 — and before that was the Texas agriculture commissioner. He holds a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Texas A&M University.
In his 2010 book, “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington,” Mr. Perry called the established science of human-caused climate change a “contrived, phony mess.” His views align with those of Mr. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.
More recently, Mr. Perry was a contestant on the television show “Dancing With the Stars,” but was eliminated in an early round.
He was briefly a front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, but his Energy Department “oops moment,” as he called it, is widely seen as having sunk his candidacy. His run for the 2016 nomination ended in late 2015, but not before he called Mr. Trump a “barking carnival act” and a “cancer on conservatism.”
Mr. Perry did campaign energetically for Mr. Trump later.
Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Perry appears to line up with his appointment last week of the Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Pruitt — who, like Mr. Perry, is skeptical of climate change — has built a career out of suing the agency he is now set to lead and seeking to dismantle its rules and authority.
Mr. Abraham noted that current events often dictate the energy secretary’s role. When he took the job in 2001, he said, his focus was on rolling blackouts in California and the Enron electric utility scandal. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, his attention shifted to counterterrorism and nuclear weapons and nonproliferation programs.
Mr. Chu was brought in by Mr. Obama to focus on climate change programs, but in the summer of 2010, he became consumed with personally helping to engineer a way to stop the oil gushing from a blown BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Moniz’s tenure centered on brokering the Iran deal.
In November 2011, the former governor of Texas famously forgot that the U.S. Energy Department was one of the agencies he had pledged to eliminate if he were to become president.CreditCredit…Jeff Kowalsky/European Pressphoto Agency
“The thing about the department is its diversity, and no one can have a foot in every single department door,” Mr. Abraham said. “You’ve seen people with a science background, a military background. Rick Perry has background running a big bureaucracy, the state of Texas. I think he’ll do a great job.”
And Mr. Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico who served as Bill Clinton’s energy secretary, said Mr. Perry’s experience leading a state with a diverse energy economy could serve him well — with one major caveat.
“Over all, Governor Perry is a sound choice, because you need a strong leader with political stature and a megaphone for the job, and Rick has both,” he said, noting that he and Mr. Perry had often worked together as governors of adjoining southwestern states. But “as a big fossil fuel advocate, my concern is that Perry will get sucked in by the Trump climate deniers and try to dismantle the valuable renewable energy and climate change programs that the department manages.”
Already, Mr. Trump’s transition team has raised fear that he will target the agency’s climate change programs and the people who run them. This month, the transition team circulated an unusual 74-point questionnaire at the Energy Department that requested the names of all employees and contractors who had attended climate change policy conferences, as well as emails and documents about the conferences.
Former department employees and presidential transition officials said a request for lists of specific people involved in shaping climate policy was irregular and alarming. Employees said Tuesday that the choice of a secretary who has vowed to eliminate the agency compounded those fears.
An Energy Department spokesman, Eben Burnham-Snyder, said the agency had refused to give the names. “Some of the questions asked left many in our work force unsettled,” he wrote in an email.
“We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department,” he wrote. “We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”