Correction: This story has been corrected to say that the Sandia National Laboratories management contract will be granted by the National Nuclear Security Administration before the end of the year.
Updated: This story has been updated to include comments from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.
WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald Trump nominated former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as secretary of energy, potentially giving the 66-year-old Republican oversight of the nation’s vast and complex energy mission, national laboratories and nuclear weapons programs.
The prospect of Perry as energy secretary drew sharp protest from New Mexico’s two Democratic senators, with Martin Heinrich calling him “utterly unqualified” for the complex task of running an agency that oversees nuclear weapons work at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.
Perry supporters contend his approach to energy development as governor of Texas resulted in job growth and helped position the state as one of the nation’s strongest economic engines.
Perry met with the president-elect for 90 minutes at Trump Tower in New York on Monday. While there was no official announcement from the Trump transition team on Tuesday, multiple media outlets, including The Associated Press and The Washington Post, reported Perry’s appointment as a done deal.
If confirmed by the Senate, Perry – who once proposed abolishing the Department of Energy – would likely shift the department away from its intensive focus on renewable energy and toward oil and other fossil fuels that he championed as Texas governor. Perry left office in January 2015 after a record 14 years as governor and then launched his second ill-fated bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would conduct Perry’s confirmation hearing, said Trump “has signaled his blatant hostility to the department and the workforce at our national labs by nominating someone who has proposed eliminating this entire agency.”
“The Department of Energy is New Mexico’s economic lifeblood, and the people who work at our DOE and NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) labs are among our nation’s greatest intellectual assets,” Heinrich said.
“I’m not confident that Rick Perry is fully cognizant of the role that DOE plays in keeping our nuclear deterrent safe, secure and reliable,” Heinrich added. “He is utterly unqualified to lead this critical agency.”
Meanwhile, Sandia’s management contract, currently held by Lockheed Martin, is under consideration by the NNSA, an arm of the DOE that oversees work at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs. The main challenger is a partnership made up of the Boeing Co., Battelle, the University of New Mexico, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System.
An NNSA spokeswoman said Tuesday that announcement of the contract bid winner is expected before January.
The state’s senior senator, Democrat Tom Udall, said Perry’s remarks about abolishing the Department of Energy, made in 2011 during his first presidential run, showed “a lack of seriousness about the department’s full mission.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican and former oil industry executive, praised the pick as “another smart choice by President-elect Trump.”
“Gov. Perry brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position,” Pearce said. “As the chief executive of the state of Texas, Gov. Perry oversaw the largest State regulated oil industry in the nation. He approved and permitted a number of nuclear sites, and maintained a strong and fiscally sound budget. I look forward to working with Gov. Perry to ensure the nuclear and energy industries in New Mexico continue to excel.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also said she backed the choice.
“Gov. Perry is a very good friend of mine who showed tremendous leadership in the State of Texas,” Martinez said. “I look forward to working with him at the Department of Energy to support our national labs and WIPP facility. Governor Perry is the right pick and will be a great asset to New Mexico and the rest of the country.”
Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, called Perry “an insightful and proven leader” called him “a great choice to lead the Department of Energy.”
But Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, denounced Perry, calling him “a puppet for energy companies.”
However, the group did note “one bright spot” related to his energy record as Texas governor. The group said Perry helped trigger the “Texas renewable energy boom by signing into law an infrastructure project that built nearly $7 billion in transmission lines to carry wind power into Texas cities, which created tens of thousands of good-paying jobs.”
Perry has drawn criticism from some environmental activists because he is on the board of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the company trying to build the 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline has sparked protests that have made national headlines.
Perry also serves on the board of another energy firm, Sunoco Logistics Partners. He has been a vocal skeptic on climate change since before his first run for the White House.
Perry was a harsh critic of Trump during this year’s presidential campaign, even calling the billionaire businessman a “cancer to conservatism.”
But Perry lasted only three months in the race for the 2016 nomination before dropping out. Perry later endorsed the Republican nominee and said he’d be willing to work in a Trump administration.
Perry recently demonstrated his fitness with a brief appearance on this season’s “Dancing With the Stars.” He was the second contestant eliminated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.