Obama's Energy and Environment Team Includes a Nobel Laureate, Veteran Regulators

The president-elect is expected to appoint Steven Chu, who runs a national lab, as energy secretary.

By + More

President-elect Barack Obama appears to be on the verge of tapping a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a Princeton University-educated chemical engineer, and a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency for the top spots on his energy and environment team.

Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a 1997 corecipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, has emerged as Obama's likely pick for secretary of energy. Lisa Jackson, a former commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection who was trained as a chemical engineer, is expected to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Carol Browner, former EPA chief in the Clinton administration, is expected to be asked to serve as a "high-level coordinator" on energy issues—and perhaps something of a "czar" on climate change.

It is by all accounts, a well-credentialed team that will help carry out Obama's ambitious energy and environmental agenda.

Obama's picks are also a dramatic departure from many of his predecessors. The choice of Chu gives a leading scientist rare prominence in the cabinet, while the full slate indicates Obama's interest in aggressive action on climate change, increased funding for scientific research, and stronger environmental regulation by the federal government.

It is, in other words, an about-face from the Bush administration.

The three picks have a record of supporting high levels of federal involvement in energy and environmental issues, both in terms of money invested and regulatory oversight. During the early 1990s, Browner earned a reputation for attempting to uphold water and air regulations in the face of opposition from congressional Republicans. Jackson, likewise, at a congressional hearing last May on mercury emissions, told lawmakers, "Implementing the real maximum achievable protections is simply the only moral and ethical choice available if we are to meet our responsibility as public officials."

At a talk in April 2007, Chu expressed similar sentiments, arguing that federal regulation not only works but is often less costly than detractors warn—a debate that will undoubtedly be playing out over the next few years as Congress considers the economic costs of regulating greenhouse gases.

"If there is a regulation that says you have to do something—whether it be putting in seat belts, catalytic converters, clean air for coal plants, clean water—the first tack that the lawyers use, among others things, and that companies use, is that it's going to drive the electricity bill up, drive the cost of cars up, drive everything up," Chu said at the time. "It repeatedly has been demonstrated that once the engineers start thinking about it, it's actually far less than the original estimates. We should remember that when we hear this again, because you will hear it again."

At Berkeley, Chu has strongly advocated research into solar power and advanced biomass, in particular biofuels made from grasses that won't compete for space with farmland. At a talk this summer in Nevada, Chu said, "In the first eight months of a new research program, we have developed ways to separate out cellulose, and we have already made a yeast [that] makes a gasolinelike fuel. Already within eight months, we are working on diesel and jet replacement fuels. We need to work with making this really scalable so it will outperform the yeast we have to today." (One potential disagreement with Obama: Chu has criticized corn-based ethanol, which Obama has strongly supported in the Senate and in the campaign.)

In talks and lectures, Chu also stresses the need for improving energy-efficient technologies and their multiple payoffs. "Just refrigerator efficiency saves more energy than all that we're generating from renewables, excluding hydroelectric power," he said this summer. "I cannot impress upon you how important energy efficiency is. It doesn't mean you eat lukewarm food and your beers are lukewarm. You can still have it; you just make a better thing."