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Steve Chu Comes to Washington

For senators cross-examining physicist Steven Chu yesterday at his confirmation hearing to become secretary of the $24 billion Department of Energy, one thing was clear: The pick was a real indication of how different the Obama Administration's energy policies will be from those of the Bush era. Chu listed the dangers of climate change before the importance of energy security in his opening statement and had called coal his "worst nightmare."

Chu mostly sailed through the hearing, and Republican as well as Democratic members of the energy panel said he would have little trouble getting confirmed once Obama was officially inaugurated. The praise was effusive. "Keen scientific mind" (Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico). "His determination is infectious" (Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who declared that Chu and his wife Jean were friends).

But Democrat Byron Dorgan of coal-rich North Dakota reminded Chu that he controls the appropriations subcommittee that determines the Department of Energy budget and that the two of them would be working together for the foreseeable future. "So be nice," he told Chu. He then pressed Chu to give context to his "nightmare" quote. Chu's response: "If we use coal the way we're using it today, then it is a pretty bad dream." Chu emphasized that the key is making coal plants able to pump their carbon emissions into the ground.

The hearing yielded plenty of details about what to expect in Obama's Administration. Chu wants to expand federal energy efficiency research programs, which have long received less emphasis from the Department of Energy than efforts to put solar panels on roofs or build windmills. He would continue controversial programs to study the reprocessing of nuclear waste but at a much slower pace than the Bush Administration had tried.

Chu raised eyebrows when he said that increasing the cost of electricity to battle climate change was a good idea--provided that it was done while increasing energy efficiency, so that total costs for consumers wouldn't go up. His opening statement didn't mention the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E, of which he had been a big fan when it was invented by a National Academies panel on which he had sat in 2006. And none of the senators asked about the dormant blue-sky research program, which Congress instructed the Department of Energy to set up last year. (Energy scientists across the country have largely been fans of the idea.) Chu wouldn't take questions from reporters afterward.

But elsewhere there were intriguing hints. Chu declared that he wanted "to accelerate the testing" of different geologic areas to better understand them and prepared to store billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground. He said he wanted to inspire scientists from a variety of fields to join the effort to come up with new energy solutions, as he had at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

One area where he saw a lot of opportunity for new science was so-called fourth-generation biofuels that derive from agricultural waste, lumber waste, or straw. He became visibly excited as he began talking about the idea, which might provide the feedstocks for fuels besides ethanol like gasoline or jet fuel. "Now we are getting to science, I love this," he said. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas, smiled. "I just want to make sure it's something I grow," she said to laughter from the room, speaking for Arkansas farmers and reminding Chu of the political realities of the job he'll soon be taking.

(This is a modified version of the original post, edited for clarity.)