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Jodi Peterson | Feb 05, 2013 05:00 AM

We've posted before about the mass exodus of cabinet secretaries Obama is facing (typical for a second-term president). One of the more notable vacancies is that of Energy Secretary – Steven Chu has announced he's stepping down.

When he took office in 2009, HCN senior editor Ray Ring gave his thoughts on Chu and other key new leaders (all of whom are now departing):

Taken together, Chu, (Jane) Lubchenco (NOAA head), (Nancy) Sutley (Council of Environmental Quality Chair) and (Hilda) Solis (Labor Secretary) will likely provide strong, coherent leadership for the transformation of policies on global warming and energy. They will also help restore the government’s scientific integrity, which the George W. Bush administration greatly undermined. Obama says Chu’s appointment is "a signal ... that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

Now that the longest-serving energy secretary in U.S. history is stepping down, what can we conclude about Chu's tenure? Did he fulfill our high hopes?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu
Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Well, sorta. In February 2011 we looked at Chu again. His track record as an alt-energy ubernerd had heartened us when he was appointed ("he has a sterling pedigree in alternative energy research and experience in the energy sector, as well as a Nobel Prize," we noted). And he'd been director of the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. After two years, we saw some progress:

Chu has gone on record as pro-nuclear energy, but under his watch DOE stalled nuclear waste storage at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, and the 2011 budget request effectively closes the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. The small fossil-energy research budget has been refocused on carbon capture and storage research.

Meanwhile, DOE is moving aggressively on clean energy: The 2011 budget request includes a 22 percent increase in solar energy investment and a 53 percent increase for wind. …

Chu's Energy Department also secured $400 million in stimulus grants for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, which Congress created as part of the America COMPETES Act of 2007 but never before funded. ARPA-E promotes "creative, out-of-the-box, transformational" ways to produce low-carbon domestic energy … .

In line with Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, Chu's DOE also supported renewable energy with projects like the Tonopah solar facility and geothermal development in Nevada. And it oversaw the granting of the first nuclear reactor license to be issued since 1978 and increased domestic oil production (which, arguably, had much more to do with energy markets than with DOE's policies). Chu not only stalled Yucca Mountain but eventually derailed it entirely in favor of a process that would give states more say in waste disposal. But we can't exactly say we've seen "bold action" on climate change from anyone in the Obama administration.

As you'd expect, pundits from many publications have weighed in on Chu's departure, each with their own take on his legacy (and, of course, Chu's own resignation letter lists his accomplishments and notes that  “just as today’s boom in shale gas production was made possible by Department of Energy research from 1978 to 1991, some of the most significant work may not be known for decades … our country will reap the benefits of what we have started”).

In a paragraph that just might set a record for number of clichés deployed, the Las Vegas Review-Journal (with the Associated Press) summed up Chu's work on Yucca Mountain:

Bob Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said Chu was a breath of fresh air for Nevada after a string of energy secretaries tried to cram the Yucca Mountain Project down the Silver State's throat when no other state was pegged for shouldering burial of 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants and the military.

From Scientific American:

" … solar technology proved most troublesome to Chu’s tenure, as some companies funded under the stimulus subsequently failed, notably Solyndra and Abound Solar. And the bankruptcy of A123 Systems may presage a similar fate for some of the advanced battery makers similarly backed. Of course, those failures are a result of the success in making solar power and batteries cheaper and better globally, as well as a typical outcome for high-risk, high-reward efforts like those ARPA-e is focused on. “The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes,” Chu noted in his letter.

From Technology Review:

Under Chu's leadership, the U.S. Department of Energy has changed the way it does energy research and development. He leaves behind new research organizations that are intently focused on solving specific energy problems, particularly the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy as well as several Innovation Hubs. … Chu also brought an intense focus on addressing climate change through technical innovation, speaking clearly and optimistically about the potential for breakthroughs to change what’s possible. … Whether that focus continues, and the extent to which the programs he started bear fruit, will depend heavily on who Obama chooses to replace him.

And there's plenty of speculation about possible replacements – although as Kennedy Maize of Powerblog notes, it might not even matter who steps up next, because politics and policy don't drive the economics of energy.

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.

Despite that cynical view, most of us think that energy policy does matter (especially climate policy, which Obama is promising to emphasize in this term) and we're looking to the possible replacements. E&E News outlines several:

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is pitching a clean energy "Race to the Top" program that would spur states to compete for federal dollars to boost renewable energy and efficiency. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has teamed up with former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on an eagerly anticipated Bipartisan Policy Center paper outlining an array of energy recommendations. Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is directing a think tank at Colorado State University. And former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) has valuable experience with nuclear waste management, which makes up a significant piece of the Department of Energy's portfolio and earned her a shout-out in Chu's resignation letter.

Stay tuned; we'll continue to keep you updated about other departing cabinet secretaries and their possible replacements.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News.

(Photo credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

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