Steven Chu: His Irrelevance

The Obama administration’s energy secretary, Dr. Steven Chu, has quickly become Dr. Who. As a recent New York Times article noted, Chu has repeatedly stumbled politically, demonstrating that being a Nobelist in physics is no qualification for the bumps-and-grinds of energy politics in Washington.

The Times observed that Chu is most comfortable with the science role of DOE. That’s entirely understandable. DOE is a major R&D funding agency, which Chu benefited from in his prior job as head of DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But he’s less comfortable as the administration’s putative lead-dog on policy issues, about which appear to boggle his scientific mind. Indeed, he’s a trail-dog, far from an alpha male in the Obama administration, when it comes to understanding and selling energy policy.

Chu was unable to defend the administration’s decision to scrap the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste dump in Nevada at a recent Senate hearing, when pressed by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. The Yucca decision was made in the White House. Chu was clueless as to why and unable to offer a credible defense of the administration policy. It was clear that nobody in the White House briefed him on the decision.

That indicates a key problem for Chu and the Department of Energy. They are not in the policy loop. They are not making energy policy decisions, and will not in the future. Chu is a technocratic figurehead who will have no significant impact on Obama administration decisions on energy, the environment, and global warming policy. The White House will trot him out from time to time, basking in the glow of his Nobel prize, but Chu will have no impact on administration policy.

The driver of the Obama administration’s energy and environmental policy is Carol Browner, the White House “czar” on energy and environment. Former head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration, she’s an acolyte of former Vice President Al Gore. Her views on energy policy issues are well-known, and seem not amendable to serious discussions with energy interests that disagree. She appears to be, in short, a zealot.

That’s a real problem for Chu, who is already seen by fossil energy folks as a zealot against coal and natural gas. He’s had to backtrack on statements about clean coal technologies and acknowledge ignorance about OPEC oil pricing strategies (confessing the truth that he doesn’t really know much about U.S. energy policy).

DOE is a major research and development funding agency, as Chu knows well as a beneficiary at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But is it also the front group for the White House when it comes to energy policy (and is the dispenser of some $40 billion in “stimulus” funds aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions). That means that Chu must be much more than an advocate for energy science funding, as he has been to date, and immerse himself in the nasty gore of competing technologies and energy politics.

Don’t expect much of Chu, who may be the smartest energy secretary in history. Brains don’t count. As was the case for most of his predecessors as energy secretary, Chu’s a puppet. The White House pulls the strings, and the energy secretary reacts accordingly. Chu probably doesn’t yet understand that reality, but he’s a bright guy and he will quickly figure it out.