WASHINGTON — Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Energy Department, got a taste last week of what life in Washington would be like.
Members of the Illinois congressional delegation met with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jan. 7 and pressured him to support renewed federal aid for a project in Mattoon, Ill., to build a virtually emissions-free, coal-fired power plant. The Bush administration cancelled funding for the project last year after budget overruns.
Mr. Obama is building a significant part of his economic-recovery plan on a bet that the U.S. can dramatically change the way it powers its economy. And Mr. Chu has called the expansion of conventional, coal-fired generating plants his worst nightmare, adding that he isn’t sure that the technology in the Illinois project represents a solution to coal’s impact on the environment.
It’s one example of the issues Mr. Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, will face in seeking to reconcile the new administration’s lofty promises with policy on the ground.
He is scheduled to be in Washington Tuesday for a Senate hearing likely to focus on his scientific credentials and his warnings about the consequences of climate change. After Mr. Chu’s expected confirmation, he will confront the challenge of using the relatively narrow formal scope of his agency’s mission and budget as a platform for changing the way Americans think about energy. Mr. Chu lamented in a speech in Washington last year that many Americans “would rather have a granite countertop” than spend extra on energy efficiency.
For all the enthusiasm that Mr. Chu’s nomination has generated among environmentalists and scientists, the Energy Department has little formal power to affect the nation’s energy choices. Most of the department’s budget goes toward managing nuclear weapons and cleaning up former weapons labs. Its budget for research and development has plummeted since its peak of $6 billion in the Carter administration to $1.4 billion last year, according to a recent report by the Energy Security Leadership Council, a Washington-based group.
Some of that money is tied up on projects that critics say are technically or economically unfeasible, but that the agency is obligated to pay for because they have been added to legislation by members of Congress. An analysis last year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science referred to the Energy Department as one of the most heavily earmarked domestic U.S. research-and-development agencies.
The son of Chinese immigrants and a co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics for helping develop ways to trap atoms by herding and subduing them with laser beams, Mr. Chu has warned that climate change will have dire economic and social consequences. As director of the Lawrence Berkeley lab, he focused on developing advanced biofuels and energy-efficient technologies. He helped shepherd the creation of a new energy biosciences institute, funded by oil giant BP PLC, despite skepticism from some at the university who were wary of its corporate funding.
Mr. Chu declined through a spokeswoman last week to be interviewed.
As energy secretary, Mr. Chu would play a key role in helping Mr. Obama execute his ambitious goals of doubling over three years the amount of U.S. wind, solar and geothermal generating capacity, currently around 25,000 megawatts. Mr. Obama’s aides say his administration would do that partly through loan guarantees like those the Energy Department already administers.
Skeptics, such as Exxon Mobil Corp. Chief Executive Rex Tillerson, say there isn’t enough manufacturing capacity to produce the many wind turbines needed to make Mr. Obama’s vision a reality.
Mr. Obama also has pledged to raise $150 billion over the next 10 years for various clean-energy technologies and alternative fuels, with revenue generated by an emissions-trading system that would cap industries’ greenhouse-gas emissions and force companies to pay to pollute. But legislation creating such a system isn’t expected to pass Congress this year, and pressure is growing on Washington to figure out faster ways to pay for such projects.
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