Issue Date: January 19, 2009
Congress Questions Chu, Jackson
EVEN BEFORE Barack Obama has been sworn in as the 44th U.S. President, his nominees to head the Department of Energy and EPA have come before separate Senate committees in the first step toward their confirmation.
Last week's hearings offered senators an opportunity to ask questions of the nominees and get a head start on approving them, noted Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee.
Steven Chu, a Nobel Laureate who leads DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, appeared to glide through a Jan. 13 hearing before Bingaman's committee. The discussion ranged from the parochial to the global. While Chu talked about the transformation of energy production, questions from the 20 senators attending often reflected the transformation's likely impact on jobs and the cost of energy in their states.
Stopping climate change and promoting energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide are clearly Chu's top priorities. Climate change, he said, is a "growing and pressing problem, and 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." He also warned of "immediate threats to our economy and national security that stem from our dependence on oil."
Chu's plans include greater commitment to renewable energy sources, increased reliance on overall energy efficiency and vehicle efficiency, more investments in CO2 capture and sequestration, continued commitment to nuclear energy and waste disposal, an improved electricity grid, and a cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Chu underscored the importance of DOE science and technology and said he would urge its "traditionally trained chemists and physicists" to shift their work to energy issues. He also stressed that DOE must become more efficient and be better managed.
Senators quizzed Chu about his view of coal and nuclear energy, including reprocessing spent fuel. Chu voiced support for coal and nuclear power as key parts of the current energy mix, but he tempered his backing for their expansion by urging quicker development of CO2 capture and sequestration technologies for coal and limited government aid to the "first several" new nuclear plants. He also argued for more R&D before embarking on a spent fuel reprocessing program.
In a separate hearing on Jan. 14 before the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, Lisa P. Jackson, Obama's nominee to head EPA, indicated that she might quickly reverse a Bush Administration decision on climate change.
The former top environmental regulator for New Jersey said if she's confirmed as EPA administrator, she would "immediately revisit" a request to let California regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks. Stephen L. Johnson, Bush's EPA chief, rejected California's request in December 2007, much to the relief of automakers. The agency's technical staff, however, had recommended that Johnson grant California's petition.
Jackson, a chemical engineer, pledged that her decisions at EPA, including in the California case, would be guided by science and the rule of law. She added, "Political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA's technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes," alluding to allegations that the Bush Administration has interfered with the work of agency scientists (C&EN, April 28, 2008, page 15).
If the Senate confirms her, Jackson will become the first African American to head EPA.
The Senate is expected to vote on the confirmations of Chu and Jackson soon after Obama's inauguration.
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