Energy Secretary Steven Chu Faces Tough Menu of Choices

Obama's energy secretary will lead his renewable energy and climate change agenda—and he's not alone.

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Previewing the challenges awaiting him at the Department of Energy, Steven Chu recently said, "What the world does in the coming decade will have enormous consequences that will last for centuries. It's imperative that we begin without further delay." Quoting William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he added, "Man will not merely endure; he will prevail."

That's heavy stuff for a first press conference, but given the full scope of the tasks before him, it's not really hyperbole, either. As the country's new energy secretary, Chu, himself a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, takes over not only the DOE's traditional responsibilities—protecting nuclear weapons and cleaning up radioactive waste—but also new ones of special importance to President Barack Obama, such as achieving rapid breakthroughs on renewable energy and helping address climate change.

The question is, where does Chu start? Certainly he won't be the only person in the administration working to transform how the nation uses energy. He'll be joined by veterans like Carol Browner, the new climate czar. But the precise nature of their balance of power remains undetermined.

There are some clues, however, about what Chu will be tackling in his first few months. The economic stimulus package under consideration in Congress will most likely include at least $100 billion of energy-related incentives, ranging from funding for "clean coal" demonstration projects to money for basic scientific research. Many projects will fall to the DOE to manage. "With the stimulus, [Congress and Obama] expect the money to get out the door quickly, and it's not that easy to get money out the door," says James Glotfelty, a former director of DOE's Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution. Once the stimulus bill is signed, Chu's agency will have to solicit and review bids to ensure that the money goes to the best candidates, he says.

That challenge, in turn, will put pressure on Chu and the Obama administration to move quickly on yet another front: appointing deputies and under secretaries to fill out the Energy Department and head specific programs. Their choices will offer an early indication of how much the DOE's mission might change under Obama. More deputies with strong research backgrounds like Chu's would signal a new focus on science and technology—as would a larger research budget.

Such shifts could help lay the technological groundwork for a broader effort to address climate change. But the extent of Chu's role in making policy decisions is still unclear. "The first real visible test will be what role DOE plays in the leading up to Copenhagen," the site of next December's major climate change conference, says Guy Caruso, former head of DOE's Energy Information Administration. "Browner will certainly have a big role in climate, and Hillary Clinton laid down the marker during her confirmation hearing. So if you are looking for one issue that tests the combination of how these players work out, this is a good one."

One thing that appears unlikely to change is how much the DOE spends on nuclear security and cleanup, which are seen as too crucial to cut.