The Energy Department secretary nominee, eminent physicist Steven Chu, sailed unscathed last week through an extensive round of questions from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members, who generally indicated their respect and support for the Nobel laureate and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Members then launched into their pet projects, spanning a wide range of energy options for the new administration to pursue.

The questions aimed at the nominee illustrated the overwhelming number of issues he will have to deal with, from clean coal and carbon sequestration to expanded loan guarantees for nuclear generation and nuclear waste disposal and cleanups, commercial development of biofuels, solar thermal plants, a carbon tax v. cap-and-trade, to the smart grid, net metering and acceleration of new long-line transmission projects to carry wind power into population centers.

What was noteworthy for lack of interest was natural gas and oil. While the nominee was peppered with questions about new prospects for coal, nuclear energy and a whole range of alternative options, only two of 18 senators on the panel had any kind words for the natural gas and oil.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-LA, urged a comprehensive, technology-driven inventory of natural resources, something that has never been done. She pointed out that the 4% of known energy reserves in oil and gas are just a fraction of what could be out there. “The American people deserve to know how much oil and gas they have,” Landrieu said.

She also suggested that the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Niger Delta was a better place to be testing new drilling techniques. “The oil and gas industry can’t practice safely in many parts of the world,” she said, noting the energy security element in the fact that while pirates are hijacking oil tankers in other parts of the world, “we don’t have pirates in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Chu dodged a question from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) as to whether the administration would reinstate the ban on most offshore drilling. Chu repeated President-elect Obama’s comment that the administration would be looking at oil and gas, both onshore and offshore, as part of a comprehensive energy policy. He added that he thought the more efficient use of energy would most help the U.S. in decreasing dependence on foreign oil.

While the senators politely stressed their interests in the confirmation hearing, it was clear from their individual emphasis that once Chu is actually at the helm of the Energy Department, there could be extensive fights over which projects get priority and funding under the new administration. Responding to questions, Chu said he expected to work closely with the incoming White House energy czar, Carole Browner, and with other federal agencies in pursuing a comprehensive energy security and climate change program.

The Democratic Senate leadership said they expected to have most of the cabinet appointees approved shortly after the new president takes office.

Chu, who holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, said the most immediate course supporting energy security and climate change is energy efficiency, which could begin now while new technologies and infrastructure for alternatives were under development. For instance, while several senators spoke in favor of nuclear fuel recycling as promising to reduce the nuclear waste problem, Chu said that while it was currently being done in France and Japan, “the processes are not ideal.” It must be done in a way that will decrease the chance of nuclear proliferation, he added. “At the moment it is a research problem” science is closely looking at.

Likewise, clean coal technology is yet to be commercially developed, along with efficient means of extensive carbon capture and sequestration. Even if the U.S. were to turn away from coal, it is unlikely that China or India would, so it is important to develop and share the technology to protect the planet, Chu said. “We need to start working with China and India, particularly on building efficiencies as they build new cities. We expect to see enormous building in China” after the recession.

And “a lot of this is about imported oil and efficiency in automobiles,” Chu said, advising that the technology isn’t ready for plug-in electric automobiles. “Frankly, we don’t have the battery we need. The first electric cars don’t have enough energy capacity.” The first steps to offload foreign oil will have to be more fuel-efficient gasoline vehicles, he said.

A key element driving new technologies, Chu said, was the enthusiasm of veteran scientists as well as graduate students to become engaged in delivering energy solutions. “Some of the best and brightest scientists and students in this country want to work on this.” Many are willing to turn away from their own dedicated projects but will need retraining, and the new ventures will need funding. Chu also noted there are “exciting” developments in the private sector where new companies are springing up every day.

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