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Chu: “On our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren”

By Joe Romm

"Chu: “On our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren”"

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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.”

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15 Responses to Chu: “On our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren”

  1. paulm says:

    mmm…I think its already happening…

    Insurance in a Climate of Change
    http://insurance.lbl.gov/

  2. hapa says:

    it’s bizarre — no — unusually disingenuous for american and chinese officials to point to each other as the reason to burn the house down.

    some money-watchers are calling our two countries “chimerica” for how tightly our economies and finances and fortunes are integrated. evan bayh et al are engaged in slapstick at the transoceanic interdepartmental talent show.

  3. P. G. Dudda says:

    hapa: is it accidental that the coined term “Chimerica” looks very similar to the word “chimera”? ;-)

  4. Russ says:

    P.G.:
    Nope, there’s nothing accidental about it.

    The mutually and globally destructive pas de deux (really more like the Dance of Death) between America and China is one of the core tragedies of the age.

    The codependency is horrible: that these two have levitated this unsustainable “trade” regime based on exponential debt, hallucinated money, terminal consumerism as quantitatively monstrous as it is qualitatively picayune, universal delusion and irresponsibility, setting up the worst economic crash ever, and holding the rest of the world (the vast majority of whom never benefitted in the slightest when the good times were rolling, on the contrary were generally mined for the benefit of the rich) hostage to the whole cliff-seeking drunken ride.

    And for good measure, the environmental effects have been horrendous, most of all in the way America and China have collaborated in obstructing emissions action, each saying I’ll go when he does, each blaming the other for doing nothing, each therefore trumping up the excuse to do nothing.

    Rogue codependency.

  5. Ronald says:

    Yah, that America China greenhouse gas thing.

    I can see a solution to the problem, is get them to not compete on it.

    America is worried that China will take away manufatoring and manufactoring like jobs from them if we make businesses charge more for the energy in carbon burning. China is worried that they won’t be able to undercut more American jobs if their businesses have to spend more for Carbon energy. The possible solution is to make carbon fueled energy a consumption tax so that the businesses don’t have to increase costs, but at the consumption end of products/services, carbon energy is a cost. And then trade what we now pay in consumption; some property and sales, and what we now pay in income; some income and payroll, into the carbon taxes.

    Other than that we will compete with each other for lowest producer costs and politicians will compete with each other for greatest jobs saved from the evil other countries.

  6. Brooks says:

    Meanwhile, the people with the oil get it: from the NY Times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/world/middleeast/13greengulf.html?em

    “So even as President-elect Barack Obama talks about promoting green jobs as America’s route out of recession, gulf states, including the emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are making a concerted push to become the Silicon Valley of alternative energy.”

    “They are aggressively pouring billions of dollars made in the oil fields into new green technologies. They are establishing billion-dollar clean-technology investment funds. And they are putting millions of dollars behind research projects at universities from California to Boston to London, and setting up green research parks at home. ”

    “The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, announced last January that he would invest $15 billion in renewable energy. That is the same amount that President-elect Obama has proposed investing — in the entire United States — “to catalyze private sector efforts to build a clean energy future.”

  7. In the old days, we recycled nuclear fuel.
    I agree that nuclear fuel should not be wasted in Yucca Mountain. Nuclear fuel is renewable/recyclable

    Yucca Mountain contains an enormous supply of nuclear fuel that should not be wasted. We don’t recycle nuclear fuel because spent fuel is valuable and people steal it. The place it went that it wasn’t supposed to go to is Israel. This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970. A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel. I almost took a job there, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker. [The army offered me more money to work on nuclear weapons effects.] [A nuclear battery would have the advantage of lasting many times as long as any other battery, eliminating many surgeries to replace batteries.] Numec did NOT have a reactor. Numec “lost” a quantity of reactor grade uranium. It wound up in Israel. The Israelis have fueled both their nuclear power plants and their nuclear weapons by stealing nuclear “waste.” See:
    http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/specialreports/buriedlegacy/s_87948.html

    It could work for any other country, such as Iran or the United States. It is only when you don’t have access to nuclear “waste” that you have to do the difficult process of enriching uranium, unless you have a Canadian “CANDU” reactor or a British Magnox reactor, both of which run on unenriched uranium. Numec is no longer in business. The reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the US stopped.
    My solution would be to reprocess the fuel at a Government Owned Government Operated [GOGO] facility. At a GOGO plant, bureaucracy and the multiplicity of ethnicity and religion would disable the transportation of uranium to Israel or to any unauthorized place. Nothing heavier than a secret would get out.

    I have no financial stake in the nuclear power industry, and I never have. Nobody is paying me to say this.

    See:
    http://www.hyperionpowergeneration.com/
    Factory made nuclear reactors.

  8. Factory built nuclear power plants: You get a set price from the factory. Zero over-runs except from protesters and frivolous lawsuits.

    The following was downloaded from http://www.hyperionpowergeneration.com/why.html
    “Why Nuclear?
    Each location on the planet offers its own unique set of energy needs and challenges. No one type of technology can provide the most appropriate solution everywhere. That’s why in order to accommodate everyone on our planet, mankind must utilize a mix of clean energy technologies that includes wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear.

    None of the options available today are as perfect as we would like them to be. Geothermal has its obvious site limitations, but so do wind and solar. In addition to requiring large tracts of land for “wind farms” and solar panels, the drawback of these technologies is that neither can offer consistent, reliable baseload electricity. When the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow these types of plants do not deliver electricity.

    Regardless of the weather, nuclear-based power plants can produce base load electricity 24/7 with no greenhouse-gas emissions.

    And while researchers are constantly seeking ways to make nuclear even more safe and efficient than it is now, nuclear is not a “new” alternative to fossil fuel-based energy. It is the safest, most reliable, and least harmful way to generate electricity. The 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. provide over 20% of the country’s electricity. For some nations, this percentage is much more; in France 78% of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear.” [NO THEY ARE NOT SUBSIDIZED!]

    “Now with Hyperion, communities and their infrastructures, emergency operations, military bases and even industrial operations, that, because of land limitations or other concerns, could never hope for reliable nuclear power, can enjoy its benefits. Hyperion Power Modules (HPMs) are small enough to be transported by truck or ship, and are setup and operable quickly – in much less time than the 10+ years it takes to build a traditional nuclear power plant! Whether the location is a small island, a remote mining site, or a hospital campus that needs independent backup power, everyone can enjoy safe, clean, reliable, affordable power.”

    ========================

    Note that local construction people can dig the hole in the ground that a Hyperion reactor needs and do all of the hookup work and so on. The Hyperion factory makes a module and brings the module on a truck and places the module in the hole. Local people do the rest, including operating the reactor and guarding the site to keep anybody from digging up the module. There are jobs to be had at the factory and at the sites. The factory replaces the fuel module every 5 years or so, and recycles the fuel.

  9. I greatly admire Professor Chu and hope to work for him. I agree with him, but I think he understates things.

  10. Ed says:

    I thought Bayh was more progressive than that. Thanks for the eye opener.

  11. Ed says:

    After looking at the video (http://tinyurl.com/a89wb2, Bayh at 2:02:10), I see that what Sen. Bayh had to say was quite a bit more complex than what I’ve seen reported. It’s not entirely clear what his stance is, since it seems he has voted progressively on this issue before:

    http://www.ontheissues.org/SenateVote/Party_2008-132.htm

    Please let me know if I’m missing something.

    [JR: I heard it live and was quite surprised, especially since indeed the senator is usually quite thoughtful on this issue, as you say. But His remarks were vague enough so that his exact meaning was not clear. If you want to take it differently, that's fine, but I certainly would suggest that people listen and draw their own conclusions.]

  12. Jerry says:

    Of the money we have seen thrown around thus far let me ask you this, that 168 billion that our country borrowed to give away to us in the form of an “economic stimulus package” …did it do a darn thing to create jobs or stimulate our economy? NO, nothing. And we borrowed the money from China.

    This past year the high cost of gas nearly destroyed our economy and society. More people lost jobs and homes as a direct result of that than any other factor in our history.

    Fannie and Freddie continue to get all the blame. Of all the homes I have seen lost in my area SW FL and believe me I have seen many, none were due to an adjustable mortgage. They were due to lack of work.

    Families went broke at the pump alone. Then added to that most saw record rate hikes at their utility companies. The high cost of fuel resulted in higher production and shipping costs that were passed on to the consumer, in most cases higher prices for smaller packaging.

    Consumers tightened their belts, cut back, went out to eat less or stopped totally. Drove around on tires that needed replacing longer, some even quit buying medicines they really need.Unfortunately cutting back and spending less results in even more layoffs. A real economical catch-22.

    And, as we are doing the happy dance around the lower prices at the pumps OPEC is planning to cut production to raise prices. They are even getting Russia in on the cutbacks. Oil is finite. We have used up the easy to get to reserves already. It will run out one day.

    We have so much available to us. Solar and Wind are free sources of energy. Of course to get the harnessing process set up is somewhat costly it is still free energy.

    It would cost the equivalent of 60 cents per gallon to charge and drive an electric car. The electricity to charge the car could be generated by solar or wind at least in part and in most cases totally.

    If all gasoline cars, trucks, and suv’s instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. What a powerful resources we have neglected.

    Jeff Wilson has a profound new book out called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now. http://www.themanhattanprojectof2009.com Powerful, powerful book! Also, if you think electric cars are way out there in some futuristic lala land please check out the web site for a company Better Place. http://www.betterplace.com/ they are setting up infrastructures in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland as well as the state of Hawaii to accommodate electric car use.

    I think we need to rethink all these bailouts and stimulus packages. We need to use some of these billions to bail America out of it’s dependence on foreign oil. Create clean cheap energy, create millions of badly needed new green collar jobs and get out from under the grip foreign oil has on us. What a win -win situation that would be for America at large

  13. I am very disappointed in Chu’s remarks. He actually said coal is a “great national resource”. He also said he was optimistic that his agency could help develop ccs and is opposed to a hard moratorium on the construction of coal plants that lack ccs. Is this Obama’s influence? He does come from a coal state (Illinois), and has touted the bogus “clean coal” idea throughout his campaign. That is Obama’s achillies heel.

  14. David Lewis says:

    I thought Bayh’s remarks worth trying to understand. Here’s my transcribed version of part of his exchange with Dr. Chu:

    “Senator Bayh: I’d like to follow up on the last question that Senator Wyden asked you, about China and you know the importance and your stated belief that it’s important, indeed essential, to include developing nations, particularly China and India in any regime of CO2 reduction. And I think you said that the US will take the first step. And hopefully China will follow. You know, we’ll have to relook at it if they don’t. It’s my honest conviction that that approach will not be enacted by the US Congress. Simply trusting China to – you know, they have their own internal needs to have high rates of growth. They’ve been proven to be willing to sacrifice just about any other concern to maintain that high rate of growth, to maintain domestic political stability. And they don’t have a great track record frankly in abiding by some of the other agreements, particularly honoring intellectual property rights, other things. And so a skeptic might say, we’re going to be going through dislocations here that will affect our economy, consumers, other things. The American people would make great sacrifices. You’d have to really wonder about whether China would go along. And you know, people have to cast votes on these things. and that probably won’t be good enough to get the job done. So I would really and I’ve raised this with hopefully the secretary to be currently Senator Clinton, hopefully Secretary of State Clinton, about the need to engage in robust diplomacy, before we come to Congress with a global warming initiative, because it’s really going to – we’re going to need to buy in in the front if this thing is going to work

    Dr Chu: Actually I agree with that completely. Just so you know, perhaps this would put you more at ease with what I said. As you know I was co-chair of this report sponsored by the InterAcademy Council. That’s a council that represents over a hundred academies of science around the world. It’s a report called “Lighting the Way” and how one transitions to a sustainable energy. And in that report, we said quite clearly that all the countries, developed and developing countries, have to be part of the solution. Now, and I agree that this is a touchy diplomatic, economic, multidimensional problem. And….

    Sen. Bayh: Dr. to put you- I was not ill at ease with what you said. I simply – this is an important issue. We both believe that. So because it’s an important issue, we have to make sure it’s going to work. And without China participating, it’s not going to work, and I don’t think it will get enacted. And a skeptic viewing their past behavior would have to say that’s going to be a heavy lift. So, – in a way that is, you know, verifiable and transparent. It’s just going to be very hard to get them there. And so I think we’re going to have to focus on that component early on in this process. And that’s beyond your bailiwick, but since you were asked about it and responded. I was not – I just want to emphasize that point: if we’re going to get this job done, we got to focus on that. And in my estimation, it’s going to be difficult, and frankly, I’m a little skeptical about whether they’ll ever get there in a way that is, you know, because of the political dynamic within their own country. But let’s give it a shot. Let’s see. Let’s do our best. Perhaps we can. I think its well worth the effort.”

  15. David Lewis says:

    My study of Chu indicates he means it when he talks about R&D as his answer to Joe’s “difficult” question that wasn’t asked, i.e. how could the US actually meet Obama’s stated target of 80% reductions in emissions by 2050. (I put “difficult” in quotes because the more difficult question I would have wanted to ask Dr. Chu was what does he think of Hansen’s open letter Obama will receive formally delivered by Holdren when he is President, which states that “the relevant experts” now believe the best science is that the target should be revised to 325-350 ppm achieved as soon as possible, and the NAS will back him up on this. As a preamble, I’d mention Obama’s statements that he would “listen” to what scientists have to say.)

    So, a transcript of Dr. Chu at this hearing, on R&D:

    “Dr. Chu: You accelerate in many different ways. I think it – recognizing that it is a research program but also to really challenge the scientists who are working on this to keep their eye on the ball. This is – so this is not a 10 – 20 year program. This is something we can produce, I think, to get it testing, in a few years. And so I think, you know, we’ve had other experiences in times of national emergency, national need, that some of the best scientists have stepped up to the plate and said, “yes, I was doing that, but this is of such importance that I’m going to focus on this” and really focusing on delivering solutions. And so the good news is that because of the energy security, because of the climate change threats, of all these things, that some of the best and the brightest students in the country want to work on this. So this is something one can work with. You want to unleash some funds to start some support – graduate work, retraining at a post doctoral of some of the best and brightest who might have been trained in a traditional field of chemistry or physics who say, “I want to work on energy, but I want to be able to retrain”.

    “I think the Department of Energy has to find a means of encouraging that work. It’s we don’t know where the solutions will come from, but I do know that they will come from the best and the brightest intellects that we have in this country.”