Energy Secretary Pick Faces Confirmation Hearing Physicist Steven Chu, tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to run the Department of Energy, goes before a Senate panel Tuesday to explain how he plans to change the nation's energy economy. His criticism of coal may irritate senators from coal-mining states.
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Energy Secretary Pick Faces Confirmation Hearing

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Energy Secretary Pick Faces Confirmation Hearing

Energy Secretary Pick Faces Confirmation Hearing

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The nominee to run the Energy Department, Steven Chu, will explain his plans for America's energy future when he goes before a Senate panel today. If confirmed, Mr. Chu's job will be simply to create a new, greener, energy economy. Just that one simple thing, which happens to touch on every single thing we do in life. At least that's what President-elect Barack Obama's been promising. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this look at what Steven Chu may have in mind.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Steven Chu, the physicist, is something of a rock star among scientists. He won science's most coveted award, the Nobel Prize, in 1997. Steven Chu, the bureaucrat, is a green energy advocate. Four years ago, Chu took over the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California. He bent his own career, and the focus of the lab, to the problem of making new fuels from green sources, things like grasses and agricultural waste. The reason, he says, is that fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas - are warming the planet dangerously. Chu hasn't been saying much since his nomination, but in a conversation about a year ago with NPR reporters, Chu said he thinks Americans aren't up to speed on the climate threat.

M: I don't think the American public understands the reasonably high probability some very bad things will happen. They fundamentally don't understand that. Because if they really felt that, then they would do something about it.

JOYCE: But Chu says people shouldn't think of fighting climate change as a sacrifice.

M: The goal is not to actually say, OK, everybody use less energy. Don't heat your homes. Don't light your homes. The goal is to have a standard of living which is carbon-neutral and works well with the world.

JOYCE: Carbon-neutral means moving away from coal and other fuels that put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. Chu says one way to do that is through the marketplace.

M: A price on carbon is one of the - if I had to name six things, that would certainly be one of them.

JOYCE: Chu says he's no fan of coal, and that could get him into some hot water among members of Congress who represent coal-mining states, for example. Chu says coal will have to be used in a less polluting way. The coal industry says it could do that, but it's going to be expensive, since coal provides about half the country's electricity. Many climate activists say coal's only hope is to go clean. Eileen Claussen runs the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a climate think tank.

M: The notion that we would simply stop burning coal, I think, is a fantasy. So the issue is, how quickly can we make it into something that doesn't harm the climate? And I think he will be an advocate for that.

JOYCE: The Department of Energy may not be the best place to do that, however. While the DOE's research budget is among the largest in the federal government, most of DOE's money goes to building and maintaining the government's nuclear weapons, and to cleaning up nuclear waste. The research and development budget has been pretty flat during the Bush administration. But Mr. Obama says he wants to change that and build a new green energy economy. Again, Eileen Claussen of the Pew Climate Center.

M: I think we're seeing a new Department of Energy, because I think the focus is going to be on energy, more than on nuclear weapons' side of the house. I think the president-elect is committed to a new energy future, and I think he's going to look to DOE to do a lot of the technological work to make sure that that future is possible.

JOYCE: But no one expects this to happen fast.

INSKEEP: There is built into the system a kind of inertia.

JOYCE: Ernest Monias is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was undersecretary of energy for President Bill Clinton. He says retooling the energy economy will affect the environment, agriculture, commerce, transportation - just about everything the government regulates.

INSKEEP: And the secretary of energy is, frankly, not in a position to easily convene all of those interests. So energy policy really cries out for a White House coordinating function.

JOYCE: Which it will have. Mr. Obama has created a new Climate and Energy Office in the White House. It's an office the new energy secretary is likely to be visiting quite often. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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