JIM TANKERSLEY, LA Times, January 13, 2009
Senators celebrated Steven Chu today as a scientist, administrator and Nobel Prize winner. But in the hearing on his nomination as President-elect Barack Obama’s Energy secretary, Chu was cast in a new role: politician.
Under gentle questioning from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the physicist and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory signaled his support for a variety of energy alternatives — including coal — to America’s dependence on imported oil.
Chu told Republicans that he would help fast-track a resurgence of domestic nuclear power and accept oil and gas drilling as part of a broad energy package. He told Democrats that he would champion solar plants and a “smart grid” that could help bring more wind power to market.
He told coal-state senators that he supports increased research for so-called “clean coal” technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions, but that he wouldn’t wait for that process to be perfected before he supported new coal power plants. He softened a much-publicized 2008 comment that coal is “my worst nightmare,” saying that “if the world continues to use coal in the way we’re using it today . . . that’s a pretty bad dream.”
“We need all of the solutions,” Chu said midway through a more than two-hour hearing. “We need to make them as clean as possible, as quickly as possible. All I can say is, we really need to do all these things.”
But Chu made clear that he favors some things above others. He focused heavily on global warming and the need to combat it through efficiency measures and renewable energy research.
His questioners focused largely on regional energy production concerns, and Chu worked hard to allay them. He did not oppose calls for increased oil drilling as part of an energy package, but noted that the United States contains only an estimated 3% of the world’s known oil and gas reserves.
In multiple answers, he sketched a plan for accelerated nuclear energy development, including improving a department loan program for new reactors and developing a long-range plan for dealing with nuclear waste.
His most extended questioning on climate change came from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who asked whether Chu preferred setting government caps on emissions or levying a carbon tax to curb them. Chu deferred to Obama’s stance in favor of caps.
“Is that the best decision,” Corker asked, “or the politically best decision?”
To which Chu replied, drawing laughter: “You’re far more experienced at answering that question than I am.”
Committee members praised Chu’s credentials and his answers, and they predicted quick and easy confirmation of his appointment. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chairs the energy committee, said the committee could approve Chu by week’s end.
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, told Chu: “It’s probably fair to say that you are uniquely poised in your ability to bring with you your background that relates the science and the technology” of the Energy Department.
Chu’s home-state senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, were equally effusive: “Simply stating, in my opinion,” Feinstein said, “there is no one brighter or more equipped than this man to become secretary of energy.”
After the hearing, even environmental groups that oppose coal and nuclear plants praised Chu’s commitment to renewable fuels and efficiency.
“What I am most heartened by is that we have someone heading the Department of Energy now who not only believes that we must fight global warming, but that the top ways of fighting global warming are energy efficiency and renewable energy,” said Anna Aurilio, who directs the Washington office for Environment America. “This is a huge change in direction from where the previous administration has been.”