Steven Chu resigns and a tree falls in the forest

By Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize)

Washington, D.C., 3 February 2013 – Steven Chu has announced his resignation as secretary of energy, so the time has come to pass preliminary judgment on his four-year term in the Obama administration. I use the term “preliminary” consciously, because journalism is only the first draft of history, and more reflective consideration may change the assessment.

But I doubt it. I believe it is fair to say that Chu was a failure at DOE, but nobody noticed. That’s not necessarily a harsh indictment. There have been, in my estimation, no successes at DOE. And that’s because it is an impossible job, created under circumstances that dooms the incumbent to failure. The Department of Energy is, to be honest, a fraudulent entity. It has almost nothing to do with energy, although Chu and his boss, President Obama, tried to transform it into an institution that somehow has relevance to the way Americans make, use, and pay for energy. Both failed, so Chu’s failure is less his than the administration’s, and less the administration’s than the failure of Congress, which created the irrelevancy known as the Department of Energy.

The Obama administration’s energy failure is less tied to its performance, which has been far from stellar, than to the political and policy environment that created and continues it. The entire 1970s notion behind the Department of Energy is that the federal government can somehow have some control over the way energy interacts with our economy and our lives. That’s a pipe dream, a point I’ve been harping on for decades, with little apparent impact. But I’ll keep on making the point. Economics of drives energy policy; politics and policy cannot drive energy economics.

That brings us to Chu, a very bright guy with a Nobel Prize in an area of physics that has nothing to do with Btus. He had no political moxie, and that was said to be a plus. The president chose him to demonstrate that the Obama administration would be different; a haven for the best and brightest, to steal from the late David Halberstam. The agency would not be just a backwater for political hacks and former fundraisers.

Steven Chu

In addition to large amounts of taxpayer money that flow to DOE through its traditional, and never-ending mission of making, testing (these days, only by computer models) nuclear weapons, and cleaning up from the mess of making and testing nuclear weapons, the Obama administration piled on massive amounts of economic recovery money. The idea was that DOE would use that stimulus money to transform the energy economy into a green paradigm. Brain power would drive the agency forward.

So how did that work out? Not well. Brains were not enough to cut it. Without belaboring Solyndra – a triumph of hubris and incompetence, but not the exemplar of corrupt politics the Republicans claimed and hoped for – let’s just say the energy mavens made a lot of bad bets. Why? Because the premise was wrong.

Green energy isn’t a seed just waiting for some smart minds and financial nourishment to sprout and flourish. There are reasons why wind and sun and allegedly smart, but expensive, technologies aren’t ready to displace coal, oil, gas, and…dare we say it, nuclear…technologies. Those fundamentals, which require more exposition that I want to get into here, overcame the cockeyed optimism of the Obama administration and Steven Chu.

Meanwhile, as the administration and Steven Chu mounted feckless endeavors to promote “green” energy and “smart” grids, whatever those terms really mean, unbeknownst to Washington the shale gas revolution was proceeding apace. That development, entirely divorced from the Washington world, accomplished what all the earnest studies and policies and half-baked laws of prior administrations and Congresses could not: reduced reliance on energy imports, lowered greenhouse gas emissions, and lowered energy prices. Who knew? Certainly not the Washington energy mandarins.

Chu wasn’t a bad energy secretary. He wasn’t a good energy secretary. He was an average, failed energy secretary, demonstrating that brains minus political savvy is not the right formula for success. Previous selections – will Spencer Abraham please stand up – have shown that political savvy without brains doesn’t work, either. What’s the right mix? Beats me.

Indeed, to follow the logical consequences of my argument, it simply doesn’t matter. Brains, savvy, experience, none of these are sufficient to overcome the inherent limitations of a job leading an agency with no coherent or useful mission. So Chu’s successor, whatever his or her qualifications and accomplishments, is not likely to be any more successful.