Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Barack Obama’s pick to head the Energy Department, Steven Chu, got his turn in the confirmation spotlight this morning, with senators asking him to clarify some of his previous statements on contentious energy issues like coal and nuclear power.

The hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was, for the most part, amiable, with the lawmakers warmly welcoming the Nobel Laureate physicist. But when the subject turned to Chu’s previous assertion that “Coal is my worst nightmare,” some coal-state senators got a little touchy. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) inquired directly about the remark that’s been “ricocheting around the internet,” while others asked more in-depth questions about what coal-related policies Chu supports.

By equating coal to a nightmare, Chu said his point was, “If the world continues to use coal the way we are using it today, and the world — I mean in particular not only the United States but China, India and Russia — then it is a pretty bad dream.” He continued, “That is to say in China, for example, they have not yet begun to even trap the sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides. There’s mercury. There’s particulate matter, as well as carbon dioxide.”

If anything, though, Chu’s remarks at the hearing likely eased the lawmakers’ fears, as he asserted that nuclear and coal will remain crucial components in the energy mix. On coal, Chu had previously said, “It’s not guaranteed that we have a solution for coal” — meaning that there is currently no proven technology to offset the C02 emissions resulting from burning coal. In today’s hearing, he softened, saying he’s “very hopeful” that carbon capture and sequester (CCS) technology is possible on a commercial scale. “I am optimistic we can figure out how to use those resources in a clean way. I’m very hopeful that this will occur and I think that we will be using that great natural resource.”

He also said he does not support a moratorium on new coal-fired plants, which advocates for climate change action like Al Gore have called for. “There are some people in the United States who feel perhaps we should turn off coal,” said Chu. “But even if we do it, China and India will not. And so we are in a position to develop those technologies so that the world can capture the carbon.”

Chu did not say explicitly whether he would continue to fund FutureGen, the $1.8 billion DOE “zero emissions” coal project that the Bush administration canned to the chagrin of it’s congressional fans (including Barack Obama).

But he was more bullish on solutions like energy efficiency as the best means of curbing the use of fossil fuels — particularly when pressed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) about how Chu would prioritize CCS, considering there isn’t infinite federal funding. Chu pointed to the example of California, his home state, where efficiency, he said, “allows us to avoid building other power plants.”

A large portion of the senators’ questions, however, focused on nuclear energy. Chu has said in the past that he believes the country needs to develop the technology to recycle spent nuclear waste, as the political and logistical problems related to storage are insurmountable. He noted in Tuesday’s hearing that nuclear power accounts for a fifth of the nation’s electricity and 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity.

“I am supportive of the fact that the nuclear industry should have to be part of our energy mix in this century,” Chu said. “Going forward with that, we do need a plan on how to dispose of that waste safely over a long period of time,” he said.

While Chu said he supports accelerating the loan guarantee program in order “to restart the nuclear industry,” an appropriate waste recycling solution would need to be developed. “Right now, even though France has been recycling, Japan is starting to recycle, Great Britain is now beginning to look at this, I think, from my limited knowledge about that, that the processes we have are not ideal.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, pressed him for more on his position on offshore oil development. Chu deferred to Obama’s position that any expansion of oil and gas drilling should be part of a broader energy plan.

“The reserves in the United States are perhaps 3 percent of the world reserves,” he said. “So while it is important to fold into this the continued development of our oil and gas resources, one also should recognize those numbers and, as you and I both agree upon, that the more efficient use of energy in the United States is the one big factor that can most help us decrease our dependency on foreign oil.”

He talked up the possibilities for “fourth generation” biofuels that come from agricultural waste, lumbermill waste, and non-food grasses. “I think we have to be very diverse. The solutions have to come from just about every sector,” he said. “I think biofuels are very important to get us off of the dependency on foreign oil. And it is not a possibility, but I think a probability that we will develop those technologies.”

Chu spoke emphatically about the need for action on climate change. “It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and our grandchildren,” said Chu.

“At the same time, we face immediate threats to our economy and our national security that stem from our dependence on oil,” he continued. “Last year’s rapid rise in oil and gasoline prices not only contributed to the recession we have — are now experiencing, but it also put a huge strain on the budgets of families all across America. Although prices are now lower, we know that the economy remains vulnerable to future price swings.”