WASHINGTON — Physics met politics at the confirmation hearing Tuesday for Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate scientist chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Department of Energy, and the physics bent a bit, as Dr. Chu backed away slightly from earlier statements he has made — that gasoline prices should be higher, and that coal was his “nightmare.”
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Dr. Chu, whose last job was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, answered an array of questions from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources — about his position on new nuclear reactors (yes, at least for a few plants), offshore drilling (only as part of an energy package) and new coal-burning power plants (a few, until we figure out a better way). He told the lawmakers that “last year’s rapid spike in oil and gasoline prices not only contributed to the recession we are now experiencing, it also put a huge strain on the budgets of families all across America.”
Last September, though, he told The Wall Street Journal, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” At the hearing, responding to a question about that statement, he said, “What the American family does not want is to pay an increasing fraction of their budget, their precious dollars, for energy costs, both in transportation and keeping their homes warm and lit.”
The answer is efficiency, using less so that even if the price rises, the bill does not, he said.
He also said that coal, which has a wide political constituency, would continue to be used, and that the trick was to convert it to electricity cleanly.
Dr. Chu, who is 60, got a friendly welcome from the committee, but really warmed up when Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, asked him how plants could be turned into substitutes for petroleum.
“Actually, now we’re getting to science, I love this,” he said, to laughter around the room. He said he had supervised research to figure out, “How do you break those plants down into the kind of sugars these little critters, the yeast and bacteria, can actually use.” Gene-altered bacteria have been developed to turn sugar into substitutes for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, he said.
Several senators reiterated the idea that the Energy Department faced terrific scientific challenges, and that a Nobel physicist was the appropriate person to head it. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who introduced him to the committee, referred to him as “one of the great brilliant thinkers of his generation.” Around Washington, Dr. Chu draws wide approval for emphasizing energy efficiency and new technology as approaches to the problems of energy prices and global warming.
But his science-based frankness sometimes contrasts with ordinary energy politics, which are often more centered on narrower economic interests.
For example, in a presentation at Berkeley in April 2007, now preserved on YouTube, he declared, “coal is my worst nightmare,” words previous energy secretaries would be unlikely to utter.
“We have lots of fossil fuel,” he said in that presentation. “That’s really both good and bad news. We won’t run out of energy but there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”
And he has said frankly that some of the technologies that federal dollars are pursuing would be nice to have, but are not today ready for use, either because they are too expensive to be practical, or not demonstrated to be safe. In this category he puts sequestering the carbon dioxide from power plants, recycling nuclear fuel to reduce its volume and recover unused fuel, and making ethanol from cellulose, which is essentially woody wastes or non-crop plants.
In the course of the hearing, the main mission of the department — making, maintaining and dismantling nuclear weapons, and cleaning up from six decades of nuclear weapon production — got intermittent mention. According to a report on nuclear weapons spending by Stephen I. Schwartz and sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment, the budget for nuclear weapons in 2008 was over $52 billion. Robert Alvarez, who was a policy advisor to the energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said in an interview that the department is spending about 11 times more money on nuclear weapons than on energy conservation.
Dr. Chu’s plans for steps that would reduce consumption of oil and electricity may come at an inopportune moment, as consumption is falling anyway, taking pressure off the electric grid and other energy systems. The Energy Information Administraton, which analyzes data for the department, predicted on Tuesday that for 2009, electricity consumption would fall 0.5 percent, and oil product consumption by 2 percent. Dr. Chu faces a variety of conflicting mandates. For example, he said that using more renewable energy was a national priority and thus would require a national electric grid. To help create such a grid, a 2005 law gives the department the authority to designate high-priority corridors, to overrule local objections to new power lines. But Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, complained that the department had designated his entire state, New Jersey, as part of a corridor. Dr. Chu promised to investigate.
Another problem is nuclear waste. Dr. Chu repeatedly said that of the carbon-free power generation in this country, 70 percent was nuclear. But Mr. Obama has expressed deep skepticism about the plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, the site near Las Vegas that the government has worked for 20 years to develop. A solution would have to be found, Dr. Chu said, but construction of new plants should resume now, after a hiatus of 30 years, even before the solution is developed.