Breath of Fresh Air at Energy Department

By David L. Brown

Here’s some really good news. The incoming Obama administration has picked the Nobel Prize winning director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as the new Energy Secretary. I must say it is refreshing to see a first-rate scientist taking this post instead of a politician, industrialist or Wall Street financier.

The new secretary, Steven Chu, is a widely respected physicist who has been a vocal advocate for development of sustainable, non-polluting energy sources. The laboratory he directs has been a center of research into biofuels and solar energy technologies. Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press article about the announcement of Chu’s nomination to lead the nation’s energy department:

More recently, Chu’s scientific interests have centered on energy and finding ways to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources such as biofuels from plants and converting energy from the sun into a fuel. He has spoken frequently about the need to link the physical and biological sciences with engineering to rally independent-thinking scientists in the fight against climate change.

“Steve Chu is a world-class intellectual,” said Stanford University environmental scientist Steve Schneider, who knows Chu. “When I heard that name (for energy secretary), I smiled.” Schneider said Chu will push hard within the Obama administration for reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

Obama has promised to move quickly on energy issues, including a push for more alternative fuels and to get Congress to address climate change.

Chu frequently has used the bully pulpit in a campaign against global warming and the need for alternative energy and greater energy efficiency. During a lecture last summer in Washington he bemoaned the fact that people too often prefer to spend $1,000 on a granite kitchen counter top instead of improving their home’s energy efficiency.

A few years ago he was one of six Nobel Prize-winning scientists who expressed their concern about global warming by sitting against and climbing into a massive tree on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley for a photograph that appeared in a special environmental issue of Vanity Fair magazine.

This is truly good news for America. For far too long our leaders have ignored or given lip service to the threats of climate change and economic dependence upon fossil fuels. Chu appears to be a dedicated advocate of taking strong action, and he has the credentials and reputation in the scientific community to be taken seriously.

How refreshing the news of Chu’s selection really is can be gleaned from a review of the men and women who have held the Energy post over the past couple of decades. The present Energy secretary, Samuel Bodman is a former CEO of Fidelity Investments and CEO of Cabot Corporation.

Prior to his appointment, Spencer Abraham held the post. He was a U.S. Senator and former deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle.

Prior to that, Bill Richardson the present Governor of New Mexico and a former U.S. Representative and U.N. Ambassador was the Energy secretary.

Before him was Federico Pena, a lawyer and political adviser to Bill Clinton.

Earlier in the Clinton administration the post was held by Hazel O’Leary, a lawyer and former vice president of a leading energy company.

Under George Herbert Walker Bush the post was given to James Watkins, a retired Navy admiral.

Under Ronald Reagan things were no better. The last Reagan appointee to the post was John S. Herrington, a lawyer.

He was preceded by Donald P. Hodel who later served as CEO of Christian Coalition and later led Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization associated with the Rev. James Dobson.

In 1981 Reagan appointed James B. Edwards, a dentist and former governor of South Carolina, as his first appointment to the Energy post.

And now to the Carter administration, when the Energy Dept. was led by Charles Duncan, Jr. Duncan whose experience was as manager of his family’s Duncan Coffee Co. of Houston, TX. When the company was bought by Coke, Duncan served on the board of that Atlanta, GA company and later became its president.

And finally, the very first secretary of Energy, appointed by Carter (the department was formed in 1977), was James R. Schlesinger, an economist and former assistant budget director under President Nixon.

There you have a rundown of the men and one woman who have headed the critical Energy Dept. since its beginning 31 years ago. Clearly, when the department was founded it was out of concern about America’s energy future. We had seen the gas shortages and price spikes of the 1970s and the handwriting was on the wall that it was time to change.

But, sadly we have wasted that opportunity. Now, more than three decades later we are more dependent upon foreign oil than ever before. Coal fired plants provide the lion’s share of our electricity and no new nuclear plants have gone into service for decades. Detroit has persisted in building gas hogs that burn gasoline as if it were always going to be plentiful and cheap. Development of biofuels devolved into a handout to farmers. Solar and wind power projects have been slow to come and the promise of fusion power still lies somewhere in the dim and uncertain future.

If you want to understand why the energy policies of the United States have made poor progress toward the goals of energy independence, it may help to spend a few minutes pondering this list of past Energy Dept. secretaries over the past 31 years. Not a scientist among them, and entirely too many lawyers and politicians, many with roots in finance.

So we can all cheer the selection of an eminent scientist—and one who is deeply committed to alternative energy and protection of the environment from greenhouse gas emissions—to head what has become one of the most critically important government agencies. We have entered a period of energy crisis, and the only way out is to go forward—there is no going back to the comfortable old ways that were allowed to continue under that rouges gallery of lawyers, businessmen, financiers and military men that I summarized above.

Maybe we really will see some change we can believe in. I sincerely hope so, because this is one kind of change we really need.

This entry was posted in Climate Change, Energy Technology, Fossil Fuels, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.