Obama Energy Department pick is “biofuel” booster

This Dec. 10 account from the San Francisco Chronicle paints Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama‘s pick to lead the Energy Department, as an alternative-fuels visionary who will buck the oil cartel. But this year saw a protest campaign on campus at UC Berkeley against a program Chu championed to bring “biofuels” research to the university—under the auspices of oil giant BP.

The Chronicle does mention the BP connection—although not the protests—towards the end, hailing it as “a broader approach” that can win corporate allies. Links and emphasis added:

Berkeley lab director likely next energy chief
President-elect Barack Obama is expected to nominate Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a renowned expert on alternative fuels and climate change, as the nation’s energy secretary.

The selection of Chu, who has led efforts to use solar energy in cars and to work with oil companies on biofuels, would signal a bold new direction in the United States’ response to climate change, critics of the Bush administration said Wednesday.

“The Chu pick is exciting because (he) will bring scientific rigor to the new administration’s energy policy,” said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank. “After the anti-science Bush administration, this is like going to a Mensa meeting after eight years of being trapped in the Flat Earth Society.”

Chu, who lives in the Bay Area with his wife and fellow physicist Jean Chu, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But sources close to the incoming administration indicated that he was the likely choice.

Obama also is expected to select Lisa Jackson, former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, as Environmental Protection Agency administrator; and Carol Browner, who was EPA administrator under President Bill Clinton, as White House energy czar.

Chu, 60, would beat out two other Californians whose names had been floated for energy secretary: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dan Reicher, a former assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration and leader of the Google.org foundation’s energy and climate change efforts.

Chu, who was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, is widely respected in science and energy circles. He also is considered a Washington outsider – a potential liability given that Chu would have to face off against Big Oil and be in charge of passing a mammoth energy reform bill next year.

Chu has not hesitated, however, to broadcast stark data showing that climate change could create a world ravaged by wars over arable land or water, or to advocate for aggressive changes in America’s energy system.

At the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas during the summer, he said one myth of the energy crisis is that all the necessary technology exists to solve the problem and that only political will is lacking.

“I think political will is absolutely necessary, but we need new technologies to transform the landscape,” he told the crowd.

As director of the Berkeley lab since 2004, Chu has endeavored to make it the world leader in renewable energy research.

In addition to collaborating on the Joint BioEnergy Institute and Energy Biosciences Institute – centers that join universities, businesses and the Department of Energy labs – Chu is in the midst of establishing a solar energy initiative called Helios. The center’s goal is to develop ways to store sunlight as auto fuel.

Word of Chu’s likely nomination came a day after Obama met with former Vice President Al Gore, also a Nobel Prize winner and one of the world’s leading voices on the fight against global warming. Obama’s environmental plank calls for putting more than 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road within seven years and for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Those goals and Obama’s embrace of high-profile supporters of alternative energy sources would seem to set up obvious clashes with the coal, oil and auto industries, which have regularly fought against tighter regulations on emissions.

Chu’s recent work with oil giant BP, however, may hint at a broader approach to climate-change efforts. Last year, BP entered into a $500 million partnership with UC Berkeley, the national lab and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to found the Energy Biosciences Institute, which aims to create new methods for converting plants into fuels.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power-generating and transportation companies, said Chu’s background is key to ushering in a new era of energy technology.

“An understanding of the art of the possible in energy technology will be critical to the development of a cost-effective climate change policy,” Segal said.

Prior to the Berkeley lab appointment, Chu was a professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford University.

Chu, a St. Louis native, received his undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics at the University of Rochester and received his doctorate from UC Berkeley.

“Biofuels”—called agrofuels by their critics—have of course been blasted as a corporate stratagem to maintain global control of energy production, as well as a cause of the world food shock as croplands are diverted.

See our last posts on the “biofuels” controversy, and the struggle in Berkeley.