Nobel Physicist Chosen To Be Energy Secretary

Steven Chu, who won the 1997 Nobel for Physics, has focused on energy issues in recent years.
Steven Chu, who won the 1997 Nobel for Physics, has focused on energy issues in recent years. (Ben Margot - AP)
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By Steven Mufson and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 11, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be the next energy secretary, and he has picked veteran regulators from diverse backgrounds to fill three other key jobs on his environmental and climate-change team, Democratic sources said yesterday.

Obama plans to name Carol M. Browner, Environmental Protection Agency administrator for eight years under President Bill Clinton, to fill a new White House post overseeing energy, environmental and climate policies, the sources said. Browner, a member of Obama's transition team, is a principal at the Albright Group.

Obama has also settled on Lisa P. Jackson, recently appointed chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) and former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to head the EPA. Nancy Sutley, a deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, will chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The appointments suggest that Obama plans to make a strong push for measures to combat global warming and programs to support energy innovation. "I think it's a great team," said Daniel A. Lashof, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "On policy, it's a dramatic contrast based on what I know about the policy direction that all these folks will be bringing to these positions."

Obama has not yet settled on his choice to head the Interior Department, another key environmental post, and sources close to the transition indicated that several candidates remain under consideration. Barring any last-minute glitches, Obama plans to announce the appointments next week.

Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for his work in the "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." But, in an interview last year with The Washington Post, Chu said he began to turn his attention to energy and climate change several years ago. "I was following it just as a citizen and getting increasingly alarmed," he said. "Many of our best basic scientists [now] realize that this is getting down to a crisis situation."

He sought and won the top job at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, leaving the Stanford University faculty to focus on energy issues. Chu was in London last night and unavailable for comment, but the physicist has been, in the words of his Web site, on a "mission" to make the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory "the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy."

The national laboratories fall under the Energy Department, whose budget is devoted largely to dealing with nuclear waste and materials from deactivated nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines and other reactors. But the department is also the conduit for funds that go to innovative energy technologies, including those designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

Browner, a lawyer and native of Florida, was legislative director for then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and later head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under then-Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). As the top administrator at the EPA under Clinton, she pushed for tough air-pollution standards that the agency defended against industry lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court, where the EPA prevailed. In her new role, Browner will need her legislative and administrative experience in a job that will cover everything from climate change to energy policy.

The Obama administration faces an unusually big agenda in this area. The president-elect is expected to tackle cap-and-trade legislation that would put a lid on and then lower greenhouse gas emissions. European governments are expecting him to do that before a crucial climate-change summit a year from now. Meanwhile, energy industries and environmental groups are lobbying on issues such as offshore drilling restrictions, permits for coal plant construction and expansion, nuclear reactor permits and loan guarantees, and tax breaks for renewable energy.

In addition, the new administration has to figure out how to wield the power given to the EPA last year by a Supreme Court ruling that said carbon dioxide emissions should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. How the EPA uses that power could determine the fate of all sorts of energy-intensive projects. Yesterday, the EPA said it would not finalize rules on new electricity-generating units, disappointing industry lobbyists and punting the issue to the Obama administration.

An African American native of New Orleans, Jackson grew up in the Ninth Ward, the poor and largely black neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Jackson's mother, stepfather and godmother fled the city as the 2005 storm approached. A few months later, in her swearing-in speech as New Jersey's environmental chief, Jackson said the devastation wrought by Katrina put her environmental work in a new perspective.


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