Obama is due to unveil his energy and environment team sometime next week, and the early signs are pretty promising. As expected, Lisa Jackson looks sure to get the EPA, and Carol Browner will become National Energy Adviser - aka “climate czar”. Perhaps the most interesting choice, though, is over at the Department of Energy: it looks like Obama’s Energy Secretary will be Berkeley National Lab director Steven Chu.

It would be hard to find a more qualified Energy chief than Chu; he won the Nobel Prize in physics back in 1997, and since taking over the DOE-funded Berkeley lab has by all accounts been an inspirational leader, pushing for groundbreaking research into new clean-energy technologies. He's an outspoken advocate for climate reform, and an enthusiastic supporter of solar energy and energy-efficiency projects. He's been highly critical of corn-ethanol, although he's open to developing grass and waste-fed biofuels, and seems to oppose the construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. Importantly, Chu is also up to speed on international climate negotiations: he sits on the 30-member Copenhagen Climate Council, a body established to create momentum for next December’s crucial climate talks.

In appointing Chu, Obama is providing advance notice that he’s serious about tackling climate change and about presiding over a transformative period in US energy policy; you don’t appoint someone like Chu if you’re planning on perpetuating the status quo. He’s also providing a warning to the oil giants, from whose ranks Energy Secretaries have often been drawn, that the days when they had veto power over federal energy policy are over.

Perhaps best of all, Chu’s appointment is a sign that the Obama administration will seek to restore the primacy of science in federal policymaking. Chu won’t just be the only Nobel-winning Energy Secretary; he’ll be the only DOE chief in recent memory to have run a major laboratory, or even to have earned a PhD. That sends an important message to agency scientists, demoralized after eight years of the Bush administration’s interference, that the nerds are back in charge.

Story by Ben Whitford. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Obama taps Chu for DOE
President Obama's choice for Department of Energy signals commitment to environmental issues.