Thursday, December 11, 2008

Energy Pick Gets Rave Reviews, Yet Much Work Lies Ahead


After years of perceived scientific neglect at the upper rings of government, President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu to lead the Department of Energy is drawing high marks, or as one blogger wrote, "I'm on board the Chu Chu train."

Praise for Chu's selection has been effusive. Joe Romm at Climate Progress called him "a great choice," as did Andrew Revkin on The New York Times blog Dot Earth. Brad Johnson at Think Progress' Wonk Room blog called him "a singular addition to Obama's Cabinet" and a posting from Science magazine also lays out how Chu might change the department.

The appointment brings both the prestige of the scientific world's highest honor along with adding an Asian-American to Obama's diverse cabinet.

Since last Friday, when word of possible candidates for the job began to leak, the name of Chu was little-known among big names who campaigned vigorously for Obama such as Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. The choice shows a willingness by the incoming administration to address climate and energy issues confronting the country.

During a 2005 speech at The Commonwealth Club, Chu said national security has become synonymous with energy security and the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. is threatened by global warming. (Click here to listen the speech.)

“I believe this energy issue is the center of all of these concerns," said Chu, "thus, I think it is the single most important societal problem that science has to solve. There is no magic bullet to this problem.”

Traditionally, the role of the energy secretary has primarily focused on nuclear energy and weapons issues rather than the conservation and alternative energy programs Chu favors.

The lack of administrative experience on the scale of the Department of Energy's $25 billion budget and 14,000 employees has been one major argument for some detractors. Former New Jersey governor and head of the Environmental Protection Agency Christine Todd Whitman has cautious words for the appointee saying, "It's a big leap from the academic world to the administrative world."

A Wall Street Journal piece from today also reveals Chu's aversion to coal and the need to develop methods for clean-coal.

Comments Chu made during a lecture at Cornell University last April on the need for regulations to curb carbon emission will not endear him to conservatives.

"Free market forces aren't going to do this. You really need a combination of fiscal policies and downright regulations, and it has to be international. And above all, we need to put a price on carbon without any loopholes. People in the U.S. especially are working very hard to keep it below $20 per ton -- and then have additional loopholes -- because at that price you actually don't have to change anything."

Blogger Matthew Yglesias put a damper on the appointment of Chu; while lauding it, he also believes the position offers the chance at little but a "bully pulpit." Also, at the same posting an interesting video of Chu is offered.

Chu, 60, was both congenial and lighthearted during the question and answer segment of his Commonwealth Club speech on solving the world energy crisis.

He reflected on his denial to both Princeton and Yale after graduation as a being "the best thing to happen to him" and displayed sharp, self-deprecating humor when describing his mother's feelings about winning the Nobel Prize in 1997.

“It gained me some respect in my family, but not in my mother’s eyes. She still can’t figure out why my oldest brother—he’s the one with the most degrees—and so my mother, who is getting along in the years, is still trying to figure out why didn’t Gilbert get the Nobel Prize. Why did Steven get the Nobel Prize? So, she’s finally come to the solution that Steven must be better at the politics of getting something like that. So, you can’t win.”

Wonder what Mother Chu is thinking today?


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