WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to run the U.S. Energy Department, said during a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday that global warming caused by humans is real, but that efforts to combat it should not cost American jobs.
The comment marks a shift for the former Texas governor, who had previously called the science behind climate change "unsettled" and a "contrived, phony mess." It also clashes with Trump's statements during his campaign for the White House that global warming is a hoax meant to weaken U.S. business.
"I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs," Perry said.
Perry's 3-1/2-hour hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was one of the shortest and least contentious in a long list of sessions to vet Trump Cabinet nominees since last week. The committee has not yet scheduled its vote on Perry's nomination.
As energy secretary, Perry, 66, would oversee a substantial chunk of Trump's energy portfolio. He would lead a vast scientific research operation credited with helping trigger a U.S. drilling boom and advancements in energy efficiency and renewable energy technology, and would also be in charge of maintaining the United States' nuclear weapons arsenal.
Trump, who will be sworn in as president on Friday, has promised to bolster the U.S. oil, gas and coal industries, in part by undoing federal regulations curbing carbon dioxide emissions. He has also suggested pulling America out of a global climate change pact signed in Paris in 2015, calling it expensive for U.S. industry.
He sees Perry, who was governor of Texas from 2000 to 2015 and whose nomination has the support of the energy sector, as someone who can help usher in jobs growth.
Perry added during his hearing that he regrets having previously called for the department's elimination - a proposal he made during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
That proposal, which has become known as his "oops" moment, came during a presidential candidate debate when he could not initially remember all of the three Cabinet-level departments he wanted to eliminate: Commerce, Education and Energy.
"After being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination," he said in his opening remarks.
"PROTECT" THE SCIENTISTS
Democrats on the committee expressed worry that Perry would weaken the Energy Department's functions and potentially target its army of scientists focused on climate research.
Perry sought to assuage them.
"I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone who would attack them,” he said in response to a question from Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state about whether he would cut the department's climate science budget.
When pressed on whether there would be budget or staff cuts to key research programs at the department, Perry said: "I will be an advocate (for the programs) ... but I’m not sure I’m going to be 1,000 percent successful."
He distanced himself from a questionnaire the Trump transition team sent to the department in December demanding names and publications of employees who had worked on climate issues. After an uproar by critics who said it amounted to a witch hunt, the team disavowed the survey.
"I didn’t approve it. I don’t approve of it. I don’t need that information," Perry said.
Perry said much of his focus running the department would be on renewing the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. More than half of the department's $32.5 billion budget goes to maintaining nuclear weapons and cleaning up nuclear waste.
"As a former Air Force pilot during the days of the Cold War, I understand the deterrent value of our nuclear weapons systems, and the vital role they play in keeping the peace,” he said.
Perry said he was generally supportive of a state's right to block the siting of nuclear waste dumps, like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but fell short of ruling out the federal government's power to impose them over state objections in some cases.
Nuclear waste disposal is one of the top hurdles to growth in the U.S. nuclear power industry.
Department leadership under Perry would represent a pivot from being run by learned scientists to a person who is known for close ties to energy interests.
The current energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, is a nuclear physicist who led technical negotiations in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, while the previous head, Steven Chu, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Perry recently resigned from the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners LP, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline opposed by Native Americans and environmentalists.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Leslie Adler, Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)