THE VINE JUNE 15, 2009
In this month's Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell has a terrific profile of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Sadly, it's not online, but Charlie Petit managed to scrounge up a bootleg PDF, so you can go read it over at his site. One of the subplots of the piece is that Chu came into office with the incredibly daunting aim of remaking the country's trillion-dollar energy economy—trying to ramp up the clean-tech sector and cutting U.S. emissions in order to help avert dangerous climate change. But he's also doing so as head of the Energy Department, which has historically devoted about half its $65 billion budget to managing (and cleaning up after) the nation's sprawling nuclear-weapons stockpile.
It's an awkward fit, to say the least. As Goodell notes, "One dumb-fuck security guard at Los Alamos who wants to make a buck selling secrets to Pakistan could end up distracting Chu from his mission for months." Indeed, when Bill Richardson first came to the department, he too wanted to focus on energy—and was completely overwhelmed by the Wen Ho Lee scandal. What's more, the department is embarking on a completely unprecedented push to promote clean energy, and it's struggling to keep pace. The department has $39 billion to spend under this year's stimulus bill, but has so far awarded only $4.4 billion worth of grants, projects, and loans, while just $94.7 million has been spent.
One possible solution might be to cordon off the DOE's nuclear responsibilities and hand them over to, say, the Pentagon. The White House Office of Management and Budget has floated this idea, but Chu has come out firmly against it, both publicly and privately. Presumably that's because he wants to avoid a fight with politically connected nuclear labs like Los Alamos and Sandia, but it's also (so I've been told) because those labs have a lot of powerful research capacities—including some of the most powerful supercomputers on the planet—and a slew of smart scientists who could potentially focus more on energy issues. Indeed, Chu suggested as much during a trip to Sandia National Labs earlier this year. Still, it's a real juggling act.
In any case, the profile's definitely worth a read. On a final note, Goodell also touches on what he calls Chu's "excessive faith in technology as the solution to all our woes." In the last issue of TNR, I wrote a long piece dissecting this very question, and took (partial) issue with Chu's belief that we need multiple "Nobel-caliber" breakthroughs to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by mid-century. Now, as both Goodell and I noted, Chu doesn't take the Bush-era line that only technology can save us—he's a big believer in hard caps on emissions to make dirty fossil fuels less competitive with existing clean-energy tech, as well as aggressive efficiency measures. Still, a heavy bet on high-tech solutions can be controversial in environmental circles. But for more on that, check out the TNR piece; I won't rehash it all here.