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At confirmation hearing, Rick Perry vows to pursue "sound science" on climate change

Testifying before a U.S. Senate committee on Thursday, Secretary of Energy nominee Rick Perry said he believed humans contributed to climate change and that he no longer supported the dissolution of the Department of Energy.

Former Gov. Perry is sworn in before testifying at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination to be Energy secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on January 19, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

WASHINGTON — Testifying before the committee overseeing his confirmation as U.S. energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that he believes humans cause climate change and that he no longer supports eliminating the department he's been appointed to lead.

"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," he said in his opening remarks. "In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination." 

He added that he is "excited and passionate" about pushing "core missions" of the department. He also repeatedly expressed support for the continued modernization of the nation's nuclear stockpile.

As for climate change, he said he would pursue "sound science" on the issue, while "also taking into account the economic impact." 

"I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by manmade activity. The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way, that doesn't compromise economic growth, it affects the affordability of energy, or American jobs."

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican, introduced Perry to the committee, citing a political alliance that dates back to 1990. 

"Rick Perry is simply the right man for the job," he said. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, also praised Perry early in the hearing. 

But Democrats were postured for tough questioning. 

The top Democrat on the committee, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, pulled no punches in her opening remarks, criticizing Perry for advocating for the abolition of the department and for past comments on climate change. She later praised some of his comments, but she argued that global warming has an economic impact on her state's natural resources. 

Pressed by Democrats on his commitment to fund renewable energy and climate research, Perry pledged to “protect all of the science,” whether related to climate change or other programs at the agency. He called “our scientists and our labs" "the envy of the world.”

Perry had previously called the issue of climate change “politicized” and accused scientists of manipulating data to support their overwhelming consensus that human activity is responsible for most of earth’s warming. On Thursday, he said he believed that the earth was warming due to a mix of natural and human activity.

Later in the hearing, Perry avoided answering a question from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, about whether he agreed with experts who call the changing climate a “global crisis.”

Asked broadly if he would base his decisions while leading the department on science, Perry said his track record proves that he would. The example he gave? Ordering evacuations of the Houston area during 2008's Hurricane Ike.

The hearing room had several Perry supporters, including his family, advisers Jeff Miller and Rob Johnson, and state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. 

The tone in the room was often jovial — a sharp contrast with other confirmation hearings, like that of Perry's fellow Texan, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. Democrats frequently prodded Perry on climate change but seemed somewhat startled to find a receptive voice in the former governor.

The most anticipated questioner was U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, a former liberal talk show host and Saturday Night Live player.

Any adversarial edginess dissipated when Franken asked, “Did you enjoy meeting me?" Perry set off howls in the room when he replied, "I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch" and then quickly asked if he could rephrase his answer.

As the laughter subsided, Perry said, "Well, I think we found our Saturday Night Live soundbite."

During his opening remarks, Perry vowed repeatedly to "modernize the nation's nuclear stockpile," something President Obama has vigorously pursued. What that will mean exactly remains to be seen, but President-elect Donald Trump has indicated he wants to “expand” America’s nuclear arsenal, saying he is willing to restart a nuclear arms race.

No mortal blows were delivered, and Perry emerged from the Senate hearing with his nomination likely intact.

Some of Perry’s answers could foreshadow conflict with Trump, assuming the former Texas governor is confirmed. Asked to respond to media reports Thursday that Trump’s team planned to eliminate a host of Department of Energy Offices — its Office of Electricity, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Fossil Energy — Perry suggested: "Maybe they will have the same experience I had and forget that they said that."

Kiah Collier and Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

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Congress Energy Environment John Cornyn Rick Perry