Bob Williams
Bob Williams, director of research for PennWell Publishing's Oil & Gas Journal Research Center
Bob Williams is a Contributing Editor for PennEnergy. Previsouly, he worked as Director of Research for PennEnergy's Oil & Gas Journal Online Research Center and PennEnergy Online Research Center. He worked for 4 years for the US Department of Energy writing about energy R&D, including the power sector. Prior to that, he spent 24 years on the Oil & Gas Journal staff, and has authored and managed many ancillary publications and editorial products for PennWell over the years. For a detailed bio…


Obama energy policy, Part Two: What’s up with Chu, tree-hugger?
December 22nd, 2008
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Last week’s blog focused on President-elect Barack Obama’s choices for his energy and environment team, save for the most symbolically important selection on US energy policy: secretary of energy. It’s an intriguing choice politically and symbolically but a bit of a puzzle regarding policy direction, although clearly supportive of alternative energy as a climate-change solution.

The choice of Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu to serve as US energy secretary is a direct poke in the eye to a Bush administration that has been accused of ignoring or perverting science by not jumping on the Kyoto bandwagon, among other purported perfidies.

Chu now heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where his pet project, Helios, is a joint initiative of the national lab and the University of California-Berkeley to “store solar energy in the form of renewable transportation fuel. Several approaches under investigation include the generation of biofuels from biomass, the generation of biofuels by algae, and the direct conversion of water and carbon dioxide to fuels by the use of solar energy.”

In 2007, Chu co-chaired a study panel that produced a paper for the InterAcademy Council titled “Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future.” The report outlined “best practices for a global transition to a clean, affordable, and sustainable energy supply in both developing and developed countries” and advocated development of technologies “that can transform the landscape of energy supply and demand around the globe.”

Basically, Chu’s energy agenda will be focused on promoting biofuels in transportation, among other means, to curb greenhouse gas emissions. According to recent reported comments, he considers coal to be his “worst nightmare” and has little faith in the development of clean coal technologies as a climate change solution. He’s also not especially keen on nuclear power, fretting about nuclear waste disposal and proliferation issues, according to some reports.

Or is that an accurate picture of the man’s views? In the aforementioned paper, Chu wrote that “great urgency must be given to developing and commercializing technologies that would allow for the continued use of coal—the world’s most abundant fossil-fuel resource—in a manner that does not pose intolerable environmental risks.”

Also, Chu, in a 2005 interview, responded to the question “Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?” by saying, “Absolutely.”

So where does this keen, scientifically grounded, Nobelized intellect really stand? Despite all the chatter today about Obama’s pointed selection of a pure scientist to take the lead on energy policy, let’s not forget a key point: He runs a national lab for a massive government agency—a lab that competes with other 146 national labs (a sometimes vicious competition) for Congressional dollars that in their combined FY 2009 funding requests totaled almost $27 billion. As indisputably brilliant a scientist as Chu is, today, he’s nevertheless still a bureaucrat.

Surviving the agency budget battles of Washington, DC, requires expedience, accommodation, and, yes, sometimes talking out of both sides of your mouth at once.

So the Mr. Wizard coverboy for Obama energy policy may not be as much of a fire-breathing opponent of conventional energy as some would perceive him to be. Are there glimmers of hope that economic and energy realities may slip into energy policy in the next 4 years? Stay tuned.

Still, Chu is a coverboy of sorts. You want symbolism in a political appointment? In April 2007, the cover of Vanity Fair magazine featured Chu and six other Nobel Prize-winning scientists draped around a huge buckeye tree on the Cal-Berkeley campus. The scientists were posing that way to demonstrate their concern about global warming and energy sustainability.

A tree-hugger. Literally. And on the cover of a magazine named Vanity Fair.

In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Vanity Fair was a year-round fair in the village of Vanity that was created by the demons Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, to sell all sorts of vanities, e.g., “houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts….”

In our world, that village sits on the banks of the Potomac.

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