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The president-elect’s choice for Energy Secretary wasted no time getting to his strong suit.
After greetings to the members of the Senate energy committee in Washington Tuesday, and thanking Barack Obama for nominating him, Steven Chu plunged into the challenges ahead.
“Climate change is a growing and pressing problem,” he said. “It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.”
Among his qualifications, Chu is well known for his leadership and the efforts of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which he has directed since 2004, in responding to mounting scientific concerns about the perils of global warming.
He also shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, for a technique for cooling atoms with laser light.
The energy problem and the question of clean energy were mentioned in his next breath, along with the related problems of energy security, the nation’s dependence on oil and the threats to the economy represented by all of the above.
The Obama plan, Chu said, “will put us on a course to a better energy and environmental future, create new jobs and industries, restore U.S. energy technology leadership, and help form the foundation for future economic prosperity.”
While he touched on many other important issues and did not mention others, these were the issues he put at the top of his list.
“It will be my primary goal as Secretary to make the Department of Energy a leader in these critical efforts,” he said.
No strong objections
As Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. explained at the beginning of the hearing, Chu was one of the Obama nominees who was expected to be approved without further questioning shortly after the presidential inauguration next Tuesday, according to Senate custom.
The meeting was intended as a get acquainted session, Bingaman said, unless there were any serious reservations and there were none that he was aware of.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member on the committee, said she fully expected Chu would be nominated.
Chu was charming and agreeable, softening some of his previous statements on off-shore drilling and coal-powered electrical plants, promising to look into various senators pet concerns and pointers.
He took a measured response to nuclear power issues, aware of outstanding technical problems for both reprocessing and storage of waste, lingering difficulties he thought could be addressed scientifically.
“Nuclear has to be part of the energy mix,” he said. “There’s a lot of new science that’s coming to the fore. I pledge to work with members of this committee to use the best science to find a way that we can go forward.”
Bingaman expressed his frustration with the current Energy Department for having failed to act on an $18.5 billion loan guarantee package that he and former Sen. Pete Domenici had enacted with the 2005 energy bill.
“Still no loans have been made,” Bingaman said, wondering in the light of the forthcoming stimulus package if DOE could be counted on to put economic programs into action.
“My intention is to move rapidly in this direction,” Chu said.
“We wish you well in that regard,” Bingaman said.
In his statement, Chu vowed to maintain the nation’s nuclear defenses and promote nonproliferation throughout the world. He stated his commitment to working with other government institutions to maintain a reliable nuclear stockpile. He also pledged to do his best to accelerate cleanup efforts of legacy wastes.
Sen. Marie Cantwell, D-Wash., asked for Chu’s thoughts on whether some of the stimulus funding could be used for waste cleanup.
“As I’ve told you and others, I did argue in the discussions for the stimulus package that this made good sense to me that we actually get some significant funds into the stimulus package for this cleanup,” he said, feeding speculation that the long-standing shortages in the environmental clean-up accounts might gain a boost as an economic development option.
Chu’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was webcast live in its entirety.
“I'm very strongly supporting Dr. Chu for secretary of energy.” Bingaman said in an announcement after the hearing. “I think he is a great choice and he will bring to the job not only understanding of the science and the technology, but good managerial experience, as well. For those reasons I think he will easily gain the support of the Senate,”
Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Michael Anastasio voiced his approval shortly after the nomination.
"Steve Chu has an outstanding record in science, academia, and as director of the Lawrence Berkeley lab,” he said in a prepared statement. “Once confirmed as Secretary of Energy, he is well positioned to provide strong leadership of the science that is the foundation of the Department of Energy and of many of the challenges facing the country. We at Los Alamos are looking forward to working closely with Steve and the rest of the DOE and NNSA in the next administration."
Not only an administrator, Chu is also a professor of Physics and Cellular and Molecular Biology of the University of California, Berkeley. He received A.B. degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Rochester, a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a number of honorary degrees.
He was a member of the committee that produced the influential report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a document that has rallied support for new investments in science and technology as a key to future prosperity.
During his testimony, he also mentioned working on “Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future,” a framework for global consensus, commissioned by the government of Brazil and China. Chu was a co-chair of the study panel in 2007 that came up with a plan for resolving the inherent conflicts between developed and developing nations and between climate protection and development goals.