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Dr. Chu Goes to Washington

 "I feel like I've been dunked into the deep end of the pool," Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu confessed to reporters at a sit down hosted by energy publication Platts this week, as he struggled to answer a question about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Chu, a Nobel prize winner, knows a great deal about research. He can speak at length, and passionately, about ways to extract fuels from cellulose. He's a man, in fact, who seems to live with one foot in a greener future. Unfortunately, his job requires his attention on the oil-stained present.

When a crowd of reporters ran into Chu in a hotel hallway this week, one asked if he would try to stop OPEC from cutting oil production. Chu brushed the question off, saying, "It's not my domain."   The comment raised eyebrows, to say the least, and a few hours later, during a teleconference, Chu blamed his words on "naivete" and retracted them.  The next day, at a press conference, he faced it again:  "Does the U.S. want OPEC to cut production at its March meeting?"  Chu paused and repeated the question slowly, as though pondering a particularly interesting query from a graduate student. "I would have to look more into the exact details of what they're considering," he said finally.  "I'm not the Administration, quite frankly."

The exchange suggests that Chu—a lifelong academic researcher—isn't yet at home dealing with the political realities of his new job. While one expects he'll soon learn the ins and outs of the oil business, in some ways, he may always be an odd duck in Washington. He still carries the habits of a scientist, pausing in the middle of sentences to reconsider or rephrase what he was about to say, and shying away from making authoritative statements about anything he hasn't examined personally. He resorts, instead, to statements that carry a kind of verbal footnote:  "I'm told that ... " or "My understanding is that ... "

The department, and the reporters who cover it, will have to do some adapting, too. One reporter's question, about possible regulation of CO2 emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency, explicitly suggested that Chu should defend the economic interests of the coal industry. DOE has played this role in the past, but that probably will change under Chu, who famously called coal's CO2 emissions "a nightmare" for the globe's climate. Chu listened to the question with a bemused expression and refused to take the bait. "We'll see what the EPA says, number one," he said. "We certainly will be discussing this." Even a scientist, it seems, can learn to duck a question.