I actually thought Stephen Chu’s confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary was pretty boring. The Dems certainly didn’t want to trip him up. But the GOP didn’t really ask him any tough questions, like how the heck are you going to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 1990 levels in just four decades?
Perhaps everybody just realized that he is the most highly qualified person ever to be nominated for the position (see Top 5 reasons Chu is a great energy pick — #1: “It’s not guaranteed we have a solution for coal”). Perhaps he was just too smart to be pinned down.
The most worrisome thing I heard was when Evan Bayh (D-IN) said that he wasn’t going to be able support a climate bill before China bought in to emissions restraints in a serious and verifiable manner. That is the “China Excuse” for inaction, and it inevitably leads to The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate, where they won’t act unless we do and we won’t act unless they do. Obama must break that cycle — and I expect he will.
The Greenwire (subs. req’d) story on the hearing is excerpted below:
Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to lead the Energy Department, opened his Senate confirmation hearing today by warning of dire consequences of unchecked global warming.
“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,” Chu told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Later in the hearing, Chu said he welcomed Obama’s decision to create a new White House post to oversee and coordinate the administration’s work on energy and climate issues, saying the new position underscores the importance of those issues to Obama. The post will be filled by former EPA Administrator Carol Browner.
If confirmed as expected, Chu would come to the DOE secretary’s post from the directorship of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where since coming aboard in 2004 he has steered the lab toward research into alternative energy technologies such as next-wave biofuels.
Chu, whose qualifications have been widely praised by lawmakers in both parties, is not expected to face significant opposition en route to confirmation. The chairman of the energy panel, New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, said he hoped the committee would vote on the nomination this week.
Lawmakers opened the hearing with strong praise for Chu. “His directorship [of the Lawrence Berkeley lab] has been nothing short of revolutionary,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), while Bingaman said Chu will bring the insight and vision needed to forge a “21st century energy policy.”
In addition to warning of the need to combat climate change, Chu emphasized the economic and security threats of oil import reliance and the need to implement Obama’s pledge to speed the development and deployment of alternative energy sources. He emphasized the need to work on a range of technologies, including renewable energy sources and efficient vehicles — including plug-in hybrid vehicles — as well as carbon capture and storage technologies. He also strongly highlighted the need for acting on what he said are massive efficiency gains available in the building sector.
Chu stressed a “continued commitment” to nuclear power and the need for a long-term plan for waste management and disposal. He emphasized the importance of a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases, which the current White House has opposed but Obama and congressional Democrats hope to advance.
Chu also said he was committed to various areas under DOE’s wide-ranging jurisdiction, such as the cleanup of Cold War-era nuclear weapons production sites, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s national defense and nonproliferation missions, and the agency’s considerable science programs.
Citing the diversity of these various missions, Chu said his efforts will be “unified by a common goal” of improving program management and implementation.
Chu also keyed in on the need to develop more transmission to bring renewable energy to population centers. “This is far and away the biggest obstacle,” he said. “Mostly we have the technologies.” Chu cited the difficulty of navigating state and local concerns about transmission, but added that “in the end it is in the national interest if we develop a national grid system” to help transport power, particularly renewable energy.
Chu will likely face large tasks quickly. Bingaman said he was concerned about challenges DOE faces in implementing the suite of energy programs — expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars — in the massive economic recovery package that lawmakers hope to send Obama by mid-February. Chu noted that he spent about three-fourths of his tenure at the lab focusing on operational issues.
Support for carbon capture and storage
Chu in the past has warned about the global warming consequences of expanding coal-fired power generation, including the rapid construction of coal plants that has occurred in China, without addressing carbon emissions.
The DOE secretary nominee today said countries with large coal reserves — China, India, the United States and Russia — will not turn their backs on coal, and then emphasized that it is imperative to speed development and deployment of carbon sequestration technologies.
“I will work very hard to extensively develop these technologies so the United States and the rest of the world can use them,” he said. Chu added that even if the United States were to move away from coal, China and India would not, and the United States had an opportunity to use its technological leadership to advance the use of carbon controls. “We are in a position to develop these technologies so the world can capture the carbon,” he said, later noting that there will be some new coal plant construction in the United States.
“It is a question of science and technology and really putting the pedal to the floor as quickly as possible to develop carbon sequestration technologies,” Chu said. Questions on the issue came in part because of a comment he made in a 2007 speech, in which he noted that “coal is my worst nightmare” (E&E Daily, Jan. 12).
Commitment to nuclear power
Chu expressed a firm commitment to nuclear power, as well as to the cleanup of the nuclear waste left over from the Cold War.
He said Obama’s plans for nuclear power build on “a continued commitment to nuclear power and long-term plan for waste management and disposal.” Nuclear power and waste management, along with renewable energy, energy efficiency, oil and gas development, and energy research “will be my primary goal as secretary to make the Department of Energy a leader in these critical efforts,” Chu said.
“The point here is that nuclear power is going to be an important part of our energy mix,” Chu said. “There is certainly a changing mood in the country, because nuclear is carbon free, that we should look at it with new eyes.”
Particularly important to the progress of new U.S. nuclear power plants is the federal loan guarantee program. Bingaman noted that there has been “a lot of frustration in our committee about the length of time it takes to implement” the program, which has yet to disburse loan guarantees. Bingaman and several other senators asked Chu for a firm commitment to getting the loan guarantees disbursed quickly — as well as any new funds that may be DOE’s responsibility in the expected economic stimulus package, which Chu readily confirmed.
Chu said his plan for the nuclear program at DOE “first is to accelerate the loan guarantee program.” He said his second nuclear priority is the development of a long-range plan for safe disposal of the waste and finally to continue to research and develop a more “perfect” nuclear waste recycling technology.
Obama said he opposes the long-term geologic disposal site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., “so going forward we need a new plan,” Chu said. He did not go into specifics of what that plan may be, but he said recycling could play a part at some later time.
“Long-term recycling can be a part of that solution,” Chu said. “Right now, even though France has been recycling, Japan is, Great Britain has started looking at this, from my limited knowledge of that, the processes that we have are not ideal.”
But he said DOE under his leadership would look “very closely” at research and development of the recycling process and also hope to see some international collaboration on the subject. He also pointed out that there is an economic feasibility issue associated with recycling that has not been solved either.
Cold War cleanups
Chu also said he understood the serious issues that DOE faces in the cleanup of waste left from the Cold War.
“I take this responsibility extremely seriously, and I am committed to working with the president, national laboratories, other agencies, Congress … to assure a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile and to address proliferation concerns as part of a long-run vision of a world without nuclear weapons,” Chu said. To do this, Chu said he will work to improve management and program implementation, a serious issue the cleanup program has faced in the past.
Sen. Feinstein said she endorsed this vision and hoped Chu and Obama would implement such a plan to shrink the nuclear weapons stockpile in the new administration’s nuclear posture review due in 2010.
Alex Flint, a lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said he was “very pleased” to hear Chu’s comments about the loan guarantee program and fuel recycling. “It is tremendously refreshing to see Democratic appointees to the Department of Energy approach the issue as pragmatically as he is,” Flint said. “I think his science background and his appreciation for the magnitude of the challenge we face with climate change bode very well for nuclear.”