Dr. Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of Energy, enjoyed a collegial confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources today. In two hours, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist answered questions on energy policy and regional issues of concern to the senators on the panel. Several senators, both Democrat and Republican, reaffirmed their allegiance to the continued health of the coal industry, challenging Chu’s previous statement that “coal is my wost nightmare.” Responding to a question by Sen. Jim Sessions (R-AL) on the future of nuclear power, Chu indicated that he doesn’t believe the problems of nuclear waste and global warming should stall the construction of new power plants:
The recycling issue is something that we don’t need a solution today or even ten years from today. We have enough fuel. I think we have to figure out a way to store that spent fuel safely, which is another critical issue in this, and figure out a plan for long term disposition. Having said all of that, it doesn’t mean that you stop everything today. It’s very much like coal. We will be building some coal plants. One doesn’t have a hard moratorium on something like that while we search for a way to capture carbon and store it safely. It’s very analogous in my mind.
Chu’s opposition to a coal moratorium puts him in opposition to the likes of Vice President Al Gore and NASA scientist James Hansen, who believe “the United States must begin a sustained effort to exploit new energy sources and phase out unfettered burning of finite fossil fuels, starting with a moratorium on the construction of coal-burning power plants if they lack systems for capturing and burying carbon dioxide.”
Like Hansen and Gore, Chu has called for a rapid, global effort to dramatically reduce global warming emissions. He began his opening statement by saying:
Climate change is a growing and pressing problem. It is now clear that if we continue our current path we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and our grandchildren.
Chu indicated that he believes the more productive focus for the United States government than a coal moratorium is in a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation, with a commitment to limiting energy demand. He reaffirmed his support for a policy portfolio that includes a federal renewable electricity standard, a low-carbon fuels standard, and a carbon cap-and-trade system instead. The Center for American Progress supports an emissions performance standard to require carbon capture and sequestration at all new coal plants.