At Senate Hearing, Chu Tempers Comments on Gas Tax, Coal

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for Energy secretary, presented strong views yesterday on the need to combat climate change while delicately handling questions from senators about his past criticism of coal use, endorsement of gasoline taxes and embrace of a cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

"It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren," he said in prepared remarks, adding, "at the same time, we face immediate threats to our economy and our national security that stem from our dependence on oil."

Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where several members hailed his scientific background and recent focus on energy issues.

But senators questioned him about comments he has made, including "coal is my worst nightmare," a reference to the amount of climate-altering carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants.

Chu told the committee that "if the world continues to use coal the way it is using it today, not only in the United States but in Russia, India and China, it is a pretty bad dream." But he added that he does not favor a moratorium on coal and said he would seek and fund research on carbon capture and storage technologies so that the United States could continue to tap its abundant coal reserves.

Although Chu once called for sharply raising gasoline taxes to cut oil use, yesterday he echoed Obama's comments that given the troubled economy, higher gasoline taxes are for now "off the table." He nevertheless continued to defend the idea of higher taxes, noting that they could reduce demand for petroleum products and encourage people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, ultimately pushing down crude oil prices.

Asked about nuclear power, Chu said it had to be "part of our mix." He said he favored tapping loan guarantees to restart the nuclear industry. But he deflected a question from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) about whether he favored a far-reaching expansion of nuclear power, saying he hoped to get "the first few" plants started while continuing to search for safe ways to dispose of nuclear waste. He said waste disposal was a "legal and moral" obligation of the department.

The California physicist repeated Obama's views on offshore oil exploration, saying it had to be part of "a comprehensive energy policy." But he added that U.S. reserves were a tiny fraction of world reserves and could not solve U.S. energy problems. "The more efficient use of energy in the United States is the biggest factor that can reduce our dependence on foreign oil," he said.

Asked about the cap-and-trade system, Chu gave only tepid endorsement of the approach most commonly cited as the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "The simpler the cap-and-trade system is, the happier I will be," Chu said. He spoke strongly about energy efficiency, saying it could cut emissions and postpone the need to build new power plants. "This to my mind is the lowest hanging fruit,'' he said.

Chu also said he favored the development of a new generation of biofuels that could be made from agricultural waste and other materials and turned directly into diesel-type fuels.

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